Martin Amis is the most condescended-to novelist of his time. He is also one of the most literate, funny, quotable and (this the condescenders never neglect to mention) talented. He is the author of a few clunkers and a very strange book on Stalin, Koba the Dread, but also of two classics of contemporary satire–Money and The Information. “Be more funny!” Homer Simpson yells at the television, and it’s no use. But then, no writer has loused up his fiction with such a transparent misunderstanding of what literature should aspire to in our time.
To have watched Amis these past five years, since approximately the short-story collection Heavy Water, is to have borne uncomfortable witness to a sort of extended creative meltdown. In that time he has published a memoir, Experience, in which some funny and very warm reminiscences of his father, the novelist Kingsley Amis, are interspersed with passages of embarrassing, misplaced bathos; Koba, in which some funny and warm reminiscences of Kingsley are interspersed with passages of embarrassing, misplaced historical score-settling; and now Yellow Dog, a novel of embarrassingly transparent and misplaced moral grandstanding in which Kingsley, alas, does not appear.
He is replaced in Yellow Dog by a rogues’ gallery of disappointing predictability. There is Xan Meo, the reformed London roughhouser turned good family man who takes a hard knock on the head and reverts to his old ways; there is Clint Smoker, author of the nasty, rape-cheering “Yellow Dog” column for a sex tabloid, the Morning Lark; King Henry IX, a particularly vapid monarch; and Joseph Andrews, a crusty old criminal overlord. The characters’ trajectories are only loosely, vaguely connected, and their names do not signify (Xan is not Asian, his wife, Russia, not Russian). If the book has a subject it’s the war of the sexes and, loosely, vaguely, what pornography might have to do with it. In any case, it hardly matters. Yellow Dog is shorter than it appears, because it’s written largely in dialogue, and though the first part of it is readable enough, by the second half Amis has resorted to stealing whole sentences from his journalism, and the novel has fallen apart.
What remains is Amis’s disapproval of everyone involved. It’s not enough that Clint Smoker works for an offensive paper: His writing is off-the-charts bad, and he’s also, as his ex-girlfriend informed him, “a crap fuck.” It’s not enough that King Henry is a dullard: We learn that his wife, the queen, is in a coma, and he’s having an affair. Amis does not like pornography, and he believes, rather strenuously, that men should be respectful of women’s rights. Sometimes, momentarily, he unreins his wit, only to harness it again. “Even before the first issue had hit the streets,” we learn of Clint Smoker’s paper, “it was universal practice, at the Morning Lark, to refer to readers as wankers. This applied not only to specific features (Wankers’ Letters, Our Wankers Ask the Questions, and so on), but also in phrases common to any newspapering concern, such as ‘the wanker comes first’ and ‘the wanker’s what it’s all about’ and ‘is this of genuine interest to our wankers?’ The staff had long stopped smiling when anybody said it.”
This is the best joke in the book–and yet note, at the end, the strain of disapproval. Amis’s satire has always had a heckling quality, and too often it’s been directed at his social inferiors; his fiction has always been marred by a streak of misanthropy. In his putative maturity, though, this has been replaced by a sort of taunting, as if these morons, these deviants, these inadequates, were no longer even worth our laughter.