Perhaps more than any living writer, Martin Amis suffers for being who he is.
Yellow DogPublisher: Jonathan Cape (UK), Miramax (US)
Author: Martin Amis
UK publication date: 1969-12
Yellow Dog isn't bad as in not very good or slightly disappointing. It's not-knowing-where-to-look bad. I was reading my copy on the Tube and I was terrified someone would look over my shoulder . . . It's like your favourite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating.
author Tibor Fischer, in his review of Yellow Dog
Dear Tibor Fischer:
The most recent trend in literary reviews is to address someone personally. Usually, that person is Martin Amis. But since I am neither a friend of his, nor do I have a book coming out on the same day, I'll address someone a bit lower on the food chain.
Your recent public plea to Amis, disguised in The Daily Telegraph as a review of his latest novel Yellow Dog, appeared well before the book itself was available and in defiance of an embargo on reviews. Guaranteed a first shot at Yellow Dog, you also ensured that almost all the subsequent reviews would mention you, your opinion, and even the dubious practice of reviewing books before you are supposed to. So successful were you in hitching your wagon to Yellow Dog, that Amazon UK offers a special discount to purchasers who purchase your book along with Amis's. The resulting press from your "review" has made phrases from it almost eclipse any quotations from the book itself; avid book review readers can recite them with greater assurance than even the already rather oft-quoted opening lines to the novel: "I go up I go down . . ."
I must admit it's pretty difficult to review an Amis book to begin with, especially if one is overly concerned with the opinion of fellow commuters as you seem to be. Really, Tibor (the trend in these articles is to use first names), perhaps you ought to do something about your fear that other people on the train really care what you are reading and that they are judging you for enjoying certain kinds of reading matter. Even without the problem of reading while only thinking about yourself, Amis is a hard one to look at with a clear head and a reasonable eye. Even if he hasn't already been blasted by some other British male writer with an eye on the Booker, Amis comes as part of a larger literary narrative.
Perhaps more than any living writer, Amis suffers for being who he is. When he gets a "huge" advance (for The Information) or when he indulges in dental surgery or divorces his wife or switches agents or dumps his friends or suggests that he might move to New York, people become outraged and then write articles expressing their outrage. No one seems anywhere near as fascinated with the private life or the teeth of, say, Peter Carey or Ian McEwan.
Of course, Amis has his own mythology attached to him. His father Kingsley Amis wrote some very popular books in his day -- even if no one reads any of them any more. Amis fils hung around with a very hip crowd at Oxford and published his first novel The Rachel Papers when just a callow 24 years old. Even his own father said he couldn't read the book and made some noises about it being evidence of the decline of the modern novel. Thus Amis the younger's literary reputation has always been characterised by the personal attack (far more personal than yours), the scandal, and the evocation of envy that so often is its subject matter.
But the book itself? Yellow Dog isn't London Fields or Time's Arrow. The plot is a bit patchy. There seems to be too much going on with the various strands and some are more compelling than others. Xan Meo, the ideal husband whose unfortunate bonking on the head leads him to revert to a more primal self is, for instance, a much more fully realized figure than Clint Smoker, the tawdry tabloid hack. The Royal Family plot, while it has some insightful moments - especially when it relays the feelings of the lackey unfortunately nicknamed "Bugger" -- tends to be funny but a bit thin. The corpse knocking around in the hold of the airplane lends itself to some delights and the clever rendering of cyberspeech has its moments. But ultimately Xan Meo is the only one we care about.
Of course, Tibor, when you consider that Amis has been publishing consistently for 30 years, a book as good as Yellow Dog is hardly cause to issue a career post mortem -- especially since the brilliant The War Against Cliché is still relatively new. Heavy Water contained some of the most exquisite stories I've read in a long time, and even at his very worst, Amis packs more cleverness in a few pages than most writers can jam into an entire book.
But it seems Amis's critics go in two directions about what he ought to do next. I've heard him called overly clever by some who want him to continually replicate those darkly funny alienated creatures of his youth, but I've also read suggestions that he loses it when confronted with children and becomes sentimental and ridiculous. Damned for being too smart by those who want feeling, he gets blasted by those who can't bear it. Part of the problem with Yellow Dog is that it is both funny and serious, and ultimately a very grim book. It's pretty difficult to write funny stuff about incest and pedophilia. And it hasn't been since Nabokov (one of the younger Amis's heroes and one of the deceased Amis's demons) that an adult sexual desire for a child has been in depicted as a natural, but horrifying, desire. Tibor, when you wrote the most telling line of your screed, saying that reading this book made you feel as if you had found your "favorite uncle masturbating in the schoolyard," you haplessly stumbled on the heart of the book and didn't even know it.
Very few of the reviews I've read discuss the disturbing theme which arises repeatedly in the multiple plots. Even Sigmund Freud, some argue, couldn't deal with this problem of adult desire for children and retracted his original seduction story when he realized father-daughter incest was too hot a topic for most of the world to handle. The lack of any mention of this pervasive aspect of Yellow Dog suggests to me that many reviewers have been all too glad to have you respond to, rather than read, Amis's book. This in itself makes it a book worth reading, and I'd suggest reading it at home if you worry about what other people are thinking.