352 pp., 24.95
Yellow Dog, reviewed by Philip Christman
What Do You Mean, 'Moral' Fiction?
The unexpectedness of this turn of events raises the narrative stakes considerably. So does King Henry's anguished realization that he may be, somehow, at fault for what happened to Victoria. He writes, "I yearn to express the unconditional love and sympathy that I feel, but I just sound selfish and pompous. It's my poor character!" Yellow Dog's characters speak best in letters or notes: clever, chatty, and disarming at once. It's as if Amis has worked hardest at these junctures in the text.
What comes next, however, can only be judged a failure of nerve on the author's part. Kicked out of his house (he's begun to feel stirrings of a devouring lust for his toddler daughter) and unable to find work, Xan Meo takes a bit part in a porno movie being shot in California (a plot twist so thematically convenient it's unconvincing); he's followed there by Cora Susan, an ally of the gangster who originally attacked him, who plans to finish the revenge by seducing him, mailing photos to Russia and ruining his marriage. Xan and Cora—we are told rather than shown—"fall in love," though, and this somehow takes the edge off of Xan's regressive urges while simultaneously redeeming Cora.
The reader never sees how or why this happened; it's merely announced. Nor is Cora—or for that matter, Russia, or Princess Victoria or any other female creation in this book—drawn well enough to give the reader any idea how it may have happened. In earlier novels (Money being a prominent example) Amis discourses on the inadequacy of the idea of "motivation," saying that it doesn't adequately explain why people do what they do. This might be an interesting point, if it were clear what he means; as an excuse to avoid convincingly dramatizing his characters' actions and feelings, though, it sounds like humbug. It makes his characters ghosts, floating wanly through events in such a way as to offer opportunities for satire or moralizing. As for the porno setting of the novel's last chunk, it's there only so that Amis can share more of his clever observations with us—observations which are, moreover, mostly recycled from a 2002 Talk Magazine article on the same subject. By the end of the novel, he resembles a third–rate Oscar Wilde: a maker of smooth apothegms, a clever satirist who like most satirists is never far from preaching. We forget that Wilde, too, though he said that all bad poets are "sincere," wrote moral fables that are childlike in their earnestness.
What of the novel's other putative problem: its explicitness? Some of Amis' observations, for which the novel is a prop, have to do with what he supposes is a natural male instinct to possess: thus a father's (Xan Meo's) protectiveness, when certain socialized barriers evaporate, can become pedophilia, a rage to possess. It's an interesting argument. Should a famous author be socially sanctioned, then, when he explicitly describes a character's pornographic thoughts about a toddler–aged daughter to make these points? I don't see how anyone could be titillated by these scenes—though the thing with perversion is that one never can, unless one shares the perversion—but what's less in doubt is that few readers will want to read them, or feel that Yellow Dog is a literary experience singular enough to merit the revulsion.
When John Gardner was in a somewhat more temperate mood, he revisited some of On Moral Fiction's arguments in the subtler, more positive The Art of Fiction, a handbook for aspiring writers. There he argues that the novelist ought to think twice about portraying anything in her fiction that the greatest writers—Chaucer, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, the authors of the Bible—would avoid. It seems a decent makeshift rule for avoiding the trivial (all those scenes Philip Roth sets in the bathroom) or the morbid; after all, there's little in the range of human experience that even the Bible evades. There is something private in human sexuality, something that makes it unportrayable; the very act of observation distorts, as Wendell Berry has argued. In a novel that is occasionally eloquent on the dinginess of a culture of primped, prompted, scripted, and exposed sexuality, the portrayal of actual relationship—the love that we are told develops between Xan and Cora, and between Russia and Xan—seems to elude the author, and his characters' personalities fly right out the window with it.