Martin Amis
Yellow Dog

How Pornoland inspired Martin Amis' latest novel, Yellow Dog.

By Edward Oates

Kingsley Amis thought that his son's first novel, The Rachel Papers, was evidence of the decline of the modern novel. Following a litany of classics that includes Money, London Fields and Time's Arrow, Martin Amis's recent works have prompted some critics to suggest he's in decline himself. Yellow Dog, which was recently released as a paperback, attracted an astonishing range of reviews when it first appeared – including the novelist Tibor Fischer's attack that it is 'not-knowing-where-to-look bad'.

But Amis still manages to skillfully fit a number of absorbing storylines into Yellow Dog's 340 pages, interspersed with clever anecdotes and his usual serving of black humour. All of Amis's favourite subjects are here, plus more: incest and paedophilia now jostle with the random violence, pornography, London life, ageing, sex problems and bodily functions. We are also treated to Amis's reflections on aspects of modern life, varying from his observation that it's quicker to say 'world wide web' than its nine-syllable (supposed) abbreviation 'www', to a small treatise on the psychological effects the emancipation of women has had on male egos.

The first, and most intriguing, of the story's strands concerns the actor and author Xan Meo, a 'dream husband' and family man despite his gangland roots and a failed marriage. Xan suffers a serious head injury after a beating outside a Camden bar and reverts to a primitive being. Initially the description of the deterioration of his family life is tiresome, but things are spiced up when Xan develops a disturbing (and allegedly atavistic) interest in his youngest daughter.

The second strand introduces us to a fictional royal family, suffering at the hands of a blackmailer who has a pornographic video of the teenage Princess Victoria. It's disappointing that Amis has chosen to satirise so obvious a candidate as the royal family – but he uses this storyline as a constant source of humour all the same, cracking countless puns. The king's Chinese mistress is called He Zizhen, purely to set up some infantile jokes: 'he touched him. He touched he. He was hard. He was soft. He touched him and He touched he.' As in previous work, Amis takes lavatory humour to an extreme – with detailed descriptions of how the king, assisted by 'the groom of the stool', suffers from 'stress eczema in an optimally inconvenient site'.

Meanwhile, the Morning Lark, a newspaper not dissimilar to the Daily Sport, has also got its hands on the film of Princess Victoria. Clint Smoker, one of the paper's star-writers, is a sorry, angst-ridden loser, tormented by his underwhelming genitals. Clint has had a dismal sex life (he's used to hearing 'I'm sorry, love, but I can't feel you') and is consequently eager to pursue an email relationship with a girl called 'K8'. Inexplicably, Amis confuses the language of text-messages with that of emails. when K8's emails include abbreviations such as 'never kiss your man after fell8io – by god u'd be calling him a bum-b&it!' and 'let's c how long he can st& the s10ch', it isn't clear if Amis is losing touch with the modern world, like an embarrassing grandparent who doesn't understand computers, or is deliberately sending up modern communications.

Linking these strands is an extended criminal family that includes the east end gangster Joseph Andrews, now living in exile in California, and his hard-man Mal Bale (both of whom feature in Heavy Water). Rather lazily, Amis describes Andrews dictating his memoirs to convey his vicious past. The violence from Andrews's perspective is trifling and at times funny, in contrast to Xan's harrowing suffering. The comedy continues in Lovetown, or 'Fucktown' – the southern-Californian city devoted entirely to porn – where Amis treats us to a glossary of porno-terminology.

While some people have suggested that Yellow Dog is 'nothing like as monumental as money', Amis's agile and exact use of the English language is still evident. He describes the noise of 'unserious panic' coming from a playground, the 'motion jigsaw' of a swimming pool, and the bared front teeth 'of a sunbelt golf pro'. With typical cynicism, Amis tells us that 'after a while, marriage is a sibling relationship – marked by occasional and rather regrettable, episodes of incest.' Simultaneously serious, shocking and funny, Amis's latest work is an easy target for criticism but makes no suggestion that he is losing his touch. It may not be vintage Amis, but Yellow Dog can still delight.

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