No writer is better at showing what it’s like to be male today than Martin Amis. And the news is not particularly good. Women are on the move and men are on the run, giving up willy-nilly their “5 million years in power.” Women assert, women demand, women gather up. Men — bewildered, uncomfortable, wry, sometimes violent — give in. What choice do they have? Women give sex and comfort. They keep the yellow dog, the edgy displeasure of being a man alone, at bay.
The males capitulating in Amis’ funny, scabrous, expert 10th work of fiction, Yellow Dog, are nearly too numerous to mention: There is 47-year-old Xan Meo, an actor turned short-story writer whose wife, Russia, has put him out; there’s Clint Smoker, who “knew that the distance between himself and the world of women was getting greater.” Smoker is a tabloid journalist — well, tabloid is a bit kind; he writes for a softcore porn publication called the Morning Lark, where he makes up juicy scenarios for the relief of men as frustrated as he. “People placed near him in restaurants used to ask for relocation,” Amis writes. “That was when he still went to restaurants with other people.” Then there is Henry IX, the king of England, who wants to hold on to his 15-year-old daughter, Princess Victoria, as does his sexually confused aide-de-camp Brendan Urquhart-Gordon.
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All roads in Yellow Dog lead to Joseph Andrews; Andrews is a tough old bird, a career criminal who lives in a Southern California town dedicated to the pornography industry. He wants only to return to the England he fled decades before. “What he really missed about it,” Amis writes, “was waking in the cold and feeling the rust in his hip bones, all wired up and saddled to a faint need to shit.” This ambition, with the confusion caused by his having the same name as the title character of a famous novel, is what ties the action in Yellow Dog together — an assault on Meo, a love reversal for Smoker, a “filmed intrusion” in the princess’s bathroom. They are Andrews’ doing. The plot hardly matters. Characters aren’t realistic; they’re hyperrealistic — drawn in with a few slashing strokes and then pushed around at the pleasure of the author. The novel’s force is centrifugal. It throws off riches. You chase them down.
Amis has the gift of seeing a world he disapproves of and lavishing on it words only he knows: hardnut, foamline, chucko, bogroll. He doesn’t write prettily. Instead, as Saul Bellow did in The Adventures of Augie March, a novel Amis idolizes, he jams, he riffs. He stuffs reality to the gills. But Amis is more modern than Bellow. He writes with dots and makes you connect them. This sort of play requires a unique pact with the reader. It depends on Amis’ knowing what we think — the conversations, truisms and ad slogans that make up our verbal universe — before we come to his book. Reaching us is high-wire guesswork, and Amis is very good at it; but not surprisingly, his books divide us by gender: They are more popular with men than women. Not because Amis is misogynistic, but because the effect of his books is repulsive — and repulsiveness somehow remains a thing only men can translate into a kind of self-love.
Though he’s a comic novelist, Amis’ humor is brutal, lovable only to those who feel that way — like brutes. It comes from English dancehall vaudeville by way of the video arcade, with a dash of Don DeLillo. Nothing ought to make a heart ache more than Smoker’s problem: He has a small sex organ. He tried to cure it with a visit to the San Sebastiano Academy for Men of Compact Intromission. Then he tries Potentium, but it only “preempurples” him. He enters the “Borgesian metropolis of electronic pornography,” where he meets the woman of his dreams, “k8,” as she writes it. K8 and he begin a correspondence that holds the hope of redemption, as well as “6” (sex). But k8 is not what she seems at all — a common condition in Yellow Dog. He Zizhen, Henry’s Chinese lover, is a she; k8 has the reverse problem.
The aim of such humor is to deform rather than uplift: People are mowed down by speeding SUVs, a plane carrying a widow tumbles from the sky when the coffin containing her husband gets loose in the hold, Meo himself is beaten and left brain-injured after a misunderstanding with Andrews — one of about a dozen lads “done” by the arm twisters and leg breakers who inhabit every corner of Amis’ England. Then Andrews is vaporized by Clint Smoker when he gets home in a plot twist that I don’t even pretend to understand.
Amis’ books are really about language and its capacity to redeem. This he takes pleasure in doing with maximum economy. Take Meo’s book. We’re told it’s a “debut short-story collection” called Lucozade. What does the title mean? Probably nothing, but it suggests the sensitive, New Age, insincere “dream husband” who wrote it. It also calls to mind the medicine chest of anti-depressants and ejaculate boosters Smoker uses: Nurofen, Potentium, Narcopam, Valium. You know with a title like Lucozade that someone is going to have to hit Meo on the head.
Sometimes language in Yellow Dog exists for its own sake. I’m convinced Amis puts Henry IX in bed with He just to give His Majesty the chance to think this sentence: “Soon (he thought) we will enter He, and she will sigh so prettily.” Henry’s servant is named Love. Even Brendan wonders, “Who would want a servant called Love?” Well, Amis would, so he can torment the “celibate” Brendan with the implications of the fact that he follows “Love through the flapped door.” Meo spends most of this book in an emotional Siberia, exiled from his wife, Russia.
But bleakness is not the only note in Amis’ books. There are intimations of beauty at the edges of all his novels. Mostly they are implicit in Amis’ art — a man who writes with such energy, such showiness, who tries so hard to entertain us, cannot want us to give up, even if his characters have. In Yellow Dog, redemption also comes from below, from the children whose culture hasn’t yet been warped by adult preoccupations. “Fucktown” is the nickname for the California porn community whose gender politics Amis is fascinated with. Amis notes Fucktown is “a babyless place.” Xan Meo has two children from his marriage to Russia, Billie and Sophie. Billie, already into her fifth year, comes in for Amis’ hard-eyed treatment. She “was of that breed of little girl, who, in certain lights, resembles a 25-year-old emerging (with considerable advantage) from her second divorce.” But Sophie is still new to the world. She had never been to Fucktown. At book’s end, she gives Xan one of the many surprises in the book — but the only happy one. “There was someone else in the room [he thinks]: a new kind of person. Sophie was standing beside the heap of toys, not walking, just standing, unsupported — unconnected except by her feet to the floor . . .”
This isn’t much, in a way. We are certainly not to understand that, for Amis, children equal redemption, nor that Sophie will be spared the fate of her sister. One day someone will get between her “flapped doors” too. Her appealing innocence is temporary, but its existence is something, a hint that a bearable condition exists outside the power of Amis’ ricocheting words and clever puns.
D.T. Max is at work on The Dark Eye: A Cultural and Scientific Study of Mad Cow and Other Prion Diseases.
Yellow Dog| By Martin Amis| Hyperion | 340 pages | $25 hardcover