Slate on Amis and Yellow Dog

Martin Amis’ new novel Yellow Dog has been praised and villified on both sides of the Atlantic (This review in particular stirred up some controversy if I recall). I suppose since the central subject centers around pornography, and pornography is becoming oh so mainstream doncha know, that the buzz and controversy was to be expected.

I will admit that I have read a bit of Amis (Times Arrow, Night Train, some of Experience and
Visiting Mrs. Nabokov and Other Excursions
, and most recently Koba the Dread) and, like most everyone else, I have been impressed by his ability to use language but rather disappointed with his writing as a whole.

Given this background, I wondered whether I should read Yellow Dog myself in order to see what all the fuss was about. Well, I must admit that this Slate review has helped me make up my mind: No thanks. I simply have too many books I genuinly want to read to be interested in wading through so much garbage just for the masterful use of language. Christpher Caldwell sets up the book well, or at least peaks the reader’s interest (even after that harsh and vulgar first paragraph):

Over the course of a decade that began in the mid-1980s, Amis wrote four of the best novels any writer of his age has churned out: Money (1984), London Fields (1990), Time’s Arrow (1991), and The Information (1995). Since then, he has been productive as a memoirist and nonfiction writer, but his only novel, Night Train (1997), was short and bad. Yellow Dog is a hard book to judge. On one hand, it is a convincing return to those big, bravura novels, with their black humor, intellectual complexity and Nabokovian wordplay, that he wrote in the Thatcher-Major years. But it is also—in the ethically deadpan way it constructs a world of pornography, incest, sexual violence, and child abuse—thoroughly repellent.

But, of course, Caldwell raises it up only to knock it down:

Amis has a deadly serious moral point to make here. But it is by no means certain that anyone will want to hang around to hear it. Pornography so suffuses the book that the narrative voice itself is never uncontaminated by it. (“As he climbed from the car a boobjob of a raindrop gutflopped on his baldspot.”) Every observation partakes of the solitude of pornography. Surely this spiritual claustrophobia is just what Amis means to evoke, and the way Amis manages to leach all moral sensibility out of the novel’s voice is an extraordinary technical achievement. But it is a self-defeating one. Yellow Dog is likely to be least endurable to those most sympathetic to Amis’ anguish. Since, in the world Amis creates, casual exposure to pornographic images puts people on a steep and slippery slope, one wonders what he thinks he’s doing in forcing such imagery on the reader. Amis’ subject matter so raises the stakes that this must be either a moral book or a dirty one. It winds up being both.

You can call me a prude if you wish but, as I said, I don’t have enough time to voluntarailly wade through a book suffused with pornogrpahy just to admire its techinical achievement.

P.s. Here is my review of Koba the Dread.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).