352 pp., 28.32
Yellow Dog, reviewed by Philip Christman
What Do You Mean, 'Moral' Fiction?
Before he was hurled over the front of a motorbike at age 49, John Gardner initiated a remarkably rancorous debate among then–famous authors with On Moral Fiction (1979), a memorably seat–of–the–pants polemic in which he argued that literature and storytelling are—or can be—methods of ethical reasoning, upholding "valid models for imitation."
Everything hangs on that "valid," for these "models," for Gardner, were to be anything but the didactic playthings, pushed around by an author's pet ideologies or childhood grudges, that most readers imagine when they light on such phrases. Rather, the validity of the model is determined by the artist's process: Good writers, said Gardner, proceed through "endless blind experiments" with voice, style, subject, et. al., open–mindedly exploring the moral implications of each experiment (each character, each narrative tone, each moral assumption). It follows, then, that a bad novel will be a failure of process—an innovative style thoughtlessly adopted, or a major character whom the novelist has failed to understand, or a moral conclusion simply propounded by the narrator, without the test of dramatization.
For all the controversy engendered by Martin Amis' notably explicit novel, Yellow Dog—published here just over a year ago and released this month in paperback—it's in Gardner's sense of the term that the book morally offends. In fact, and curiously, Amis' latest production has some basically conservative points to make about the pandemic confusion that is contemporary sexual practice, points which are, by and large, well–taken. To have the satiric and stylistic mind behind Money (1984) and London Fields (1989)—a man whose rhythmically graceful yet skronkingly demotic voice has formatively influenced much recent British fiction—laud marital fidelity, and lambaste "the Borgesian labyrinth" of internet porn, is an interesting development, and to those who can stomach it, Yellow Dog offers some worthwhile perceptions on male sexual rapacity, not to mention the stylistic fireworks that are Amis' trademark. But Amis' failure to fully dramatize the struggle of his main character, Xan Meo, to stave off his ugliest, most possessive sexual–aggressive instincts robs the novel of the seriousness Amis seems intent upon.
This failure is not new to Amis, though rarely has it been so plain. London Fields, one of his most celebrated novels, attempted to engage world–historical issues (the death of love, the greenhouse effect) by the expedient of having the narrator lecture us. Amis repeated this trick in the otherwise enjoyable The Information (1995), where the narrator's blather about chaos and interstellar physics sat oddly next to the novel's Wile E. Coyote–meets–Road Runner portrait of literary rivalry. Wisely, Amis doesn't do this in Yellow Dog, instead giving us three satirically charged plots that, at least initially, rally his strengths.
In one, actor and writer Xan Meo is sent into a spiral of atavism when he's beaten in the head by agents of an underworld kingpin, an event that turns out to have an odd connection (via the blood–debt logic of machismo) to Meo's family history. In another, King Henry IX (that's Hal 9 to you Kubrick buffs) faces blackmail when a nude video of his nubile daughter, Princess Victoria, is discovered. Finally—and this is where Amis displays his always–stunning acumen for the portrayal of lad–culture tack—there's the story of Clint Smoker, a misogynistic tabloid journalist who discovers Internet love with a reader, Kate (k8), who speaks only in Instant Messagese: "u ask about my loox. … i'm 5' 7", and i no U R a taller man, clint." (Clint's response, reported in the nice deadpan typical of Amis' treatment of the character: "Birds want tall nippers: Darwin and that.")
That a writer known better for style than structure has set himself the challenge of making these plot strands connect is impressive, enough so that one forgives him the not–exactly–new targets of his satire. (Clint Smoker is a slightly smarter version of London Fields's Keith; the dithering out–of–touch King is familiar from news reports even if one skips much of contemporary British writing; etc.) And it's even OK when we begin to sense, in lieu of the author lecturing us, his characters doing it for him, as in the suspiciously leisurely and well–framed discussions between Xan Meo and his wife Russia (and, later, the criminal Cora Susan) about his sudden regression.
It's forgivable because these characters, at certain moments, display hints of a depth Amis barely even roughs out. When Russia kicks him out with the words "It would not be true to say that you raped me last night, but it would be true to say that you tried," you expect divorce papers to immediately follow; when she concludes, instead, with an unexpected show of psychological strength—telling him "our marriage is not over" and demanding "incredible effort" from him in therapy, Xan understands what's at stake: "Fidelity was his lifeline."