Chris Paling peers inside the world of Martin Amis
Back in July 2000 Martin Amis puffed on a scraggy cigarette and assured the man from the Portland Phoenix that the novel he was working on was "very much the same stuff" as Money. "There's a guy in it called Clint Smoker, who works for a newspaper that's rather like the Daily Sport, called the Morning Lark.YELLOW DOG
There's also pornography in it, and an East End family and a parallel royal family. The king is Henry IX, and he has a daughter who is kind of entrapped in a sexual thing by I don't want to give too much away." The description could serve as the blurb for the completed novel although there's no mention of the character who provides Yellow Dog with its emotional heart Xan Meo a member of that East End family (think Mad Frankie Fraser's brood with Vinnie Jones playing Xan as eldest son; Amis credits the "Mad Frankie" trilogy as a reference source). In fact it's Xan we encounter first; an actor and writer, living in domestic bliss with Russia, his American wife with her "aerodynamic cheekbones", and their two young daughters. Xan's on his second marriage, the first having culminated in "the polar opposite of love". But he's learned his lessons, "realising that, after a while, marriage is a sibling relationship marked by occasional, and rather regrettable, episodes of incest."
"I'm off out, me," Xan announces and heads off alone to celebrate the fourth anniversary of his decree nisi with a couple of cocktails ("I'll have a Shithead. No, a Dickhead. No. Two Dickheads"). Moments later, under the "porno sunset", Xan's domestic bliss is terminated by a brutal beating on the pub terrace. A blow intended to break Xan's cheekbone lands instead on his cranium; Xan goes down. And down.
Of the three main narrative strands in Yellow Dog, it's Xan's lengthy decline which will excite the most attention. Suffering from 'posttraumatic satyriasis', he graduates from shouting at the fridge ("Oi you, fuck off out of it!" "Instead of telling it to fuck off why don't you go and shut it?") to attempting to rape his wife, to taking an unhealthily close interest in his daughter doing her exercises. Back to the recurring motif of "rather regrettable episodes of incest".
Into Amis's parallel world enters the current monarch Henry IX son of Richard IV, grandson of John II. "Hal 9's" trials begin when his trusty equerry, "Bugger" UrquartGordon, receives a photograph of Henry's 15yearold daughter, snapped unawares in a bath "in her catsuit of nudity". More follow, as do the inevitable blackmail notes. But so far, the press, in the form of 'yellowtop' hack Clint Smoker, haven't been offered them. Clint lives in 'Foulness', drives a 4 x 4 the size of an Airbus and pens the "Yellow Dog" column in the Morning Lark. It's tricky to satirise the Sport, a newspaper which so effectively satirises itself, but Amis has never shied away from an easy target. "When I saw the first one," (says Clint, viewing the Lark's doublepage photospread of readers' wives) "I thought it was an expose on Battersea Dogs' Home." "Yeah," (says his colleague, Jeff Strite), "or a 'shock issue' about Romanian Mental Homes." It's the paper's proud boast that: "At the Lark, our target wanker's the unemployed."
It's not giving too much away to reveal that when the plotlines merge, the porn industry plays a central part, and along the way Amis provides us with a useful glossary of terms such as Black Eye, Cockout, Boxback, Red Face and Yellow Tongue. But then it wouldn't be an Amis novel without the riffs, the jokes, the names (porn star 'Dork Bogarde' makes a fleeting appearance), the forensic punctuation or the striking images. I particularly liked his "pigeon with a petrol prism on its neck", and the "Petri dish" of a character's tongue. He was rightfully proud of the "swimming pool and its motion jigsaw" because he used it twice.
We know Martin Amis can do the clever stuff, but many still consider his most effective work of fiction to be Money, 20 years behind him. The question is whether his much vaunted style lends itself to the hefty themes he's now tackling. Readers will decide for themselves whether the power of Yellow Dog is diluted or determined by the smartkid drawl of the storyteller. When he lets it slip there are tantalising glimpses of what lies beneath. Inside Xan Meo, for example, he reveals there is, "somewhere a baby of pristine misery; every day he felt for it and held it and fed it and every night he put it to bed."
This is, of course, Amis's first post 9/11 published piece of fiction, and although there are no direct references to it ("Bints in Burkas" didn't make it into the Lark), he has since suggested that "everything is qualified now the verities that you depended on a few weeks ago are gone." It's with this in mind that we should perhaps approach Xan Meo's rationalisation of his behaviour towards his children: "They're mine and I can't protect them. So why not rend them? Why not rape them? You can live as an animal lives, and he thought he knew, now, why an animal would eat its young. To protect them to put them back."
Ultimately, on this rationalisation, the novel stands or falls.
Yellow Dog is available from Amazon (UK).