Friday, November 12, 2010
Yellow Dog by Martin Amis
When Charlie Rose (http://www.charlierose.com/, 11/18/03) asks Martin Amis to explain what Yellow Dog is about, he says the book is a comic novel about the paradox of masculinity, that male insecurity leads to violence, and that each of the story lines reflects a crisis in masculinity. He also addresses the "obscenification of everyday life" (pp. 12, 335). M.A. says in the same interview that he started this project in earnest on September 12, 2001 in a post-9/11 world. This was Amis' first novel since The Information (1995), having written two memoirs subsequently [Experience (2000) and Koba the Dread (2002)]. With few exceptions, this novel was panned by critics, especially in the UK, where the attack was on the order of a national exorcism. Critics praised the prose will gagging on the story line. Kim (The New York Times) says "The problem is Amis's intellectualism, which sticks out like a parson at an orgy and shrinks and shrivels whatever it goes near." Cape (The Independent) says "Amis...[is]...the writer best equipped to target the moral atrocities of our age and shout them down in flames with the mighty Kalashnikov of his English prose." The infamous review by fellow novelist Tibor Fischer (The Daily Telegraph) trashed Yellow Dog, despite (or due to) the embargo placed on revealing book details, e.g., "I was reading my copy on the Tube and I was terrified someone would look over my shoulder (not only because of the embargo, but because someone might think I was enjoying what was on the page). It's like your favorite uncle caught in a school playground, masturbating." Casually reading the Amazon reviews, just seems like most readers could not understand it. A little effort is richly rewarded.
The book follows the interconnected threads of four stories, each evolving in a westerly direction, relating to (1) the protagonist, Xan ("xanthic" means yellow) Meo, novelist/actor with a criminal lineage (Mick Meo), who suffers a head injury in a seemingly random act of violence, (2) Henry England IX, vapid monarch, who receives a blackmail threat involving Internet photos of his daughter, Princess Victoria, (3) Clint Smoker, sleazy tabloid journalist who writes a misogynist column called Yellow Dog in the Morning Lark, and (4) the turbulent Flight CigAir 101, in which Royce Traynor's corpse is wreaking havoc even after his death. The glue that connects these threads is Joseph Andrews, career gangster and rival to Xan's father, more to come, as the book hits a crescendo in the final pages where linkages become apparent. A principal theme of the novel is incest, here Amis pushes the limits. Let's examine each of the four story lines.
The opening of the book introduces Hollywood (symbolic of the post 9/11 "world" with its focus on pornography, ersatz celebrity through reality TV shows, and Warholian 15-minute fame) and hospital (where Xan Meo is soon to visit). The metered prose is classic Amis "But I go to Hollywood but I go to hospital, but you are first but you are last, but he is tall but she is small, but you stay up but you go down, but we are rich but we are poor, but they find peace but they find.....Xan Meo went to Hollywood. And, minutes later, with urgent speed, and accompanied by choric howls of electrified distress, Xan Meo went to hospital. Male violence did it" (p. 3). The reader is expected to supply the missing word "war." This opening conjures up the language of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, viz. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom..." So Hollywood is a local bar in London's "Camden Town" (p. 6) and Xan, "47" (p. 8), was out to celebrate the 4-year anniversary of his decree nisi with his ex wife, Pearl O'Daniel (with whom he'd had 2 sons). Xan gets "coshed" (p. 14) on the head by mysterious assailants, out of the blue, clearly resonating with the 9/11 attacks. We later learn the name of the assailant - "Snort" (p. 46), who ends up in prison "for twelve years" (p. 251).
Xan is married to "Russia Tannenbaum" (p. 90), scholar, and he's been a doting father of 2 daughters, Billie and Sophie. Russia studies tyrants, she lectures (p. 140) on Geli Raubal and Eva Braun, both are women who committed suicide and were close to Hitler. He has a book Lucozade (after the sports drink of the same name) that mentions one Joseph Andrews in a story about Las Vegas, but his intention was to mention Tom Jones (the singer). Why the mix up ? They are both titles of Henry Fielding novels ! The bad boy gangster of same name seeks vengeance, assuming this was a reference to himself. Jo has a bad habit of knocking up his buddies' wives, a fact that is key to Xan's own DNA - "If I did have a regrettable habit, back then, it was that: giving me mates' wives one" (p. 262). His own wives seemed to die on him, two from suicide (p. 262), compare to Raubal and Braun. Jo solicits the help of Cora Susan, daughter to Leda (Xan's sister) because Mick Meo had crippled her father (Damon, who abused her sexually). Fleshing out this story line to the book's conclusion, under the pseudonym of Karla White, a porn actress, Cora lures Xan to California, and tries to seduce him to no avail. Xan is there to confront Andrews, from whom he learns that Andrews is his biological father. Jo produces Xan's birth certificate and convinces him that Mick Meo was in prison 9 mos earlier (p. 301), at the time Jo exercised his "bad habit."
The recurring theme of male violence is naturally introduced in the opening pages, as we see in the opening lines above. Amis rather glibly refers to the concept of "category error" in his Charlie Rose interview as it applies to male violence. This is a semantic or ontological (based upon existence) error by which a property is ascribed to a thing that could not possibly have that property. "Violence, triumphally outlandish and unreal, is an ancient category-error - except to the violent. The error having been made, both men would know that from here on in it was endocrinological: a question of gland-management" (p. 13). This concept of "in the DNA" is highly relevant to Xan Meo's devolution to a Neanderthal subsequent to his head trauma, he exercises his atavistic self, before he ultimately exorcises the same. Russia points out that Xan will suffer from "perseveration...you can get hooked on certain words or ideas....There's also a touch of Witzelsucht, or inappropriate humour" (p. 136). Russia tires of his animal lust from "Post-Traumatic Satyriasis" (p. 138), there was many a night when "he invaded Russia" (p. 140). Vengeance is intrinsic to violence, an "eye-eye" (p. 263) attitude permeates the book in such phrases as "enemies' enemies" (p. 133), "For this, that. For that, this" (p. 337).
In the 2nd story line, Henry IX (Hal, or Hotty) is the imaginary reigning monarch and is modeled after Harry, "Prince of Wales" (p. 16), suggesting the book takes place in the not-to-distant future. Hal sings "My Old Man's a Dustman" (p. 16), a song sung in real life by Princess Margaret (sister of QE II). His wife Pamela eventually succumbs to an equestrian accident, but Hal is quick to engage the services of a "greatgranddaughter of concubines" (p. 21) an exotic mistress, He Zizhen. Note "He" is pronounced "her." Amis has fun with the androgyny inherent in the forename - "He touched him. He touched He. He was hard. He was soft. He touched him and he touched He" (p. 22). At one point, Hal uses the royal "we" in "we will enter He" (p. 121). His 15-year old daughter, Victoria, is headed for scandal when a nude video is released to the press, filmed at Yellow House (part of a vacation château at Cap d'Antibes) (pp. 55, 84). Other "actors" in that film clip turn out to be very close to home. Henry's attendant, Brendan Urquhart-Gordon (nicknamed "Bugger", meaning homosexual, who chose chastity over "the reification of his schoolyard nickname" (p. 84)) is very close to the Princess. Contemplating the porn film imbroglio, he wonders "Is pornography just filmed prostitution or is it something more gladiatorial ?...Gladiators were slaves. But could win their freedom. What exactly has happened to you ? he asked himself. Slave, thou hast slain me. Villain, take my purse. If ever thou wilt thrive, bury my body..." (p. 259). These lines are from Shakespeare's King Lear. More importantly, they also appear at the end of the Beatles' "I am the Walrus" (see www.lyrics.wikia.com/The _Beatles:I_Am_The_Walrus for the extended lyrics including the BBC radio production of King Lear audible in the background). Ultimately, Jo Andrews conspires with He to obtain the tape and blackmail the authorities to return to Britain. Jo is a sentimental gangster and misses "the sound of leather on willow at the village green" (p. 312). We are talking cricket here - leather (the ball) and willow (the bat). The king and princess abdicate, abolishing the monarchy. So much for Victoria's secret !
In the 3rd story line, Clint Smoker, star reporter for the downscale tabloid the Morning Lark, is writing articles wreaking havoc on the "wankers" who read the rag. In a hilarious scene, he runs an article on "Readers' Richards" (p. 71) and includes a 12-inch ruler "renumbered to make it look like a six-inch ruler. Soon after dawn it started coming in: word of the Black Thursday suicides" (p. 70). Clint is working to fabricate a scandal with Ainsley Car, has-been footballer that involves Car's wife, Beryl, catching him in flagrante delicto with Lark staffer Donna Strange. His boss, Desmond Heaf (p. 26) suggests that Clint launch 'the byeline 'Yellow Dog' (photo of snarling pariah)" (p. 203). Although he talks a good game, Clint is sexually dysfunctional, he has "a little problem" (p. 30). He gets involved in a texting relationship with "cyberpal" (p. 44) k8 (Kate). She is sympathetic to his shortcoming "it's not size th@ m@ters, clint. it's love th@ m@ters" (p. 103). Many of her text messages populate the novel, one stands out and the line "r u o fait with the poetry of ezra £?" has been commented on as a clever six-word story (see http://www.sixwordstories.net/) in a blog by Lezard entitled "Six words can't tell good stories" (just google it). k8 says:
my only 1: thank u so much 4
your e of consol8ion. i don't no y,
but things are clearer now. it feels as
if a gr8 w8 has been lifted from
me. Even as my father lies in st
&drew's, f8ally unwell...u no
what i'm thinking? i think i'm
4lling in love with u, clint. yes u,
and no 1 else. u, clint! u, u, u! r u
o fait with the poetry of ezra £? as
i transmitted this, i thought of the
lines: '& now i bring the boy in,
on his knees, & send this 1,000
miles, thinking.' i'm mad 4 u, clint,
come 2 me on your return. only
when u & i r 1 will i feel truly @
peace. 10derly, k8.
ps: i vener8 yellow dog. i lite c&les
to yellow dog. i make a god of
The Ezra Pound lines are from Exiles Letter. Note 'o fait' is 'au fait' in French, meaning proficient in. Just after meeting her for the first time, "His first thought was: Shelley. The undulant frizz of hair..." (p. 326). This is actually a reference to Percy Bysshe Shelley, famous poet, known to have an androgynous appearance. In a hilarious text, he discovers that k8 is a transsexual. Here it is -
'1st, the $64,000?, clint: 6. u needn't worry. It'll be a relief 4 u 2 no this: i'e never had a ., clint.'
'I've never had a ., clint. that's y i was so tickled th@ u seemed 2 want 2 initi8 a deb8 about children. as if i want a br@! '
'And I'm relieved, am I ?'
'4 you're not th@ way inclined, r u, clint.'
'Why do you say that?'
'y?' in scribendo veritas, yellow dog. it's all in h&, clint. i've been under the nife. but not 2 destroy - 2 cre8! i've got tits & a 2l, clint. they do an operation where they w.'
'What did I hear you say to me ?'
'They w, clint....clint, what r u thinking ? said k8.
Cute pun, "they w" (they double you!). In scribendo veritas is found in Amis' memoirs (Experience, p. 337). It can be translated as " I tell you truth by writing." He's not keen on the "tranny" and is enraged and heads to confront Andrews, who he suspects is tied with k8. Clint kills Andrews and his henchman, Simon Finger.
The 4th story line is elusive for most readers. There are some subtle references in the opening chapter to the Royce Trayner saga. Most readers miss the tie-ins. Looking up, Xan spots a plane in distress and notes "a descending aeroplane can sound a warning note: one did so, above - an organ chord, signalling its own doom" (p. 10). The notion of turbulence is also at ground level "A ragged and bestial turbulence, in fact, a rodeo of wind - the earth trying to throw its riders" (p. 9). This image will return in the final paragraphs of the book. Also, in the opening chapter we are tipped off that yellow is the color of illness (think jaundice). Before entering the bar, Xan "sniffed the essential wrongness of the air, with its fucked-up undertaste, as if all the sequiturs had been vacuumed out of it. A yellow world of faith and fear..." (p. 10).
Description of Flight CigAir 101 on Valentine's Day (Feb 14), encountering "slipstream turbulence" (p. 59) between the hours of 9:05am and 6:27pm, is interspersed among the other story lines throughout the book. The flight number echoes Orwell's 1984 torture chamber in Room 101. Widower Reynolds Traynor is repatrioting the body of her husband Royce to Houston (p. 32). However, she is having an affair with Captain John Macmanaman ("if they get through this alive, she was going to make him marry her" (p. 331). The casketed corpse of Royce Traynor seems to be full of life and contributing to the plane's malfunction. The casket shifts into position to carry out it's mission - "He rolled on his side and pitched up against a rank of canisters marked HAZMAT (Hazardous Material): Class B and Class C-3 dynamite propellants and rocket motors for fighter-aircraft ejection seats" (p. 131). "Extreme turbulence would be needed before Royce could make his ext move...Like the past, he was dead and gone. But Royce was still hard and heavy with it..." (p.175). This resonates with Amis' rendition of Joseph Stalin in Korba the Dread. who still was able to contribute to the deaths of many from his coffin. Eventually, he frees himself from the plane. "Decompression, explosive decompression, was what he wanted to bring about, and the collapse, the catastrophic strangulation, of the cabin floor, with all its tubes and veins and arteries. Most proximately, the blown door would mean his own escape (he would be the first to go), his martyrdom, after death" (p. 281). He aspires to be linked with suicide bombers and pilots.
The incendiary theme of incest figures in each story thread. After his head trauma, Xan acts differently towards his daughters. Contemplating negatives in his life, he notes "The worst thing had to do with Billie" (p. 145), a harbinger of his sexual feelings towards his daughter. There is a fascinating little scene where Billie says "I went out to the shed where Daddy was and we saw the fox on the roof...I couldn't breath. Daddy hugged me too hard" (pp. 173, 215). The fox on the roof is a reference to the composer Darius Milhaud's (sounds like Meo) "The Ox on the Roof." At night he worries about the safety of his daughters. "I can't protect them. They're mine, and I can't protect them. So why not rend them ? Why not rape them ?" (p. 217). Xan embraces his atavistic self when he says "Look at the future. Us, us victims, we're not so frightened and repelled by the way the world is now: the end of normalcy. We always knew there was no moral order. So sleep with Billie, and introduce her to the void" (p. 236). In a grotesque extension of male privilege he says "'If you wanted to sexualize your relationship with your daughter - she'd go along with it. What else can she do?' This had proved to be a terrible transmission: de-enlightenment. He wished he could forget this; he wished, in Billie's phrase,that he didn't know again. Her power, her rights (which depended on what ? Civilization?) had seemed to disappear; and his power, his rights - they had corrosively burgeoned" (p. 252). Other characters carry the trauma of incest with them. Cora Susan reveals to Xan that "Between the age of six and nine, inclusive, my father raped me once day" (p. 235). There is also an incestuous inference to Henry IX and his daughter. "Subliminally, in his dreams, it worried him. The sexual coincidence: himself, in the Château, with the otherness of He in his arms; and, across the lawn, the Princess surprised in the Yellow House" (p. 87). Victoria responds in a letter of hers by saying "May I close with a few quotations from your letter ? 'Thoroughly rotten...It's my poor character...Sweetheart...let us be in this together.' Uh-huh? "I dare not close my eyes for fear of what I may see.' Oh go on and close them. It's nothing you haven't seen before. I didn't ask to be born. (p. 202).
The novel ends on an upbeat note when Xan sees his daughter Sophie (greek for wisdom) walking for the first time. He has an epiphany of her birth, "and the zigzag, the frantic scribble of the heart-monitor (experience of Amis' own daughter Fernanda) as Sophie toiled within. He was already crying when she came (as he had cried when the boys came): not because of what they faced but because of what they had already suffered, all alone and at their smallest. And minutes later, when Sophie came, for the first time in his life he was contemplating the human vulva with a sanity that knew no blindspots..." In the end, his daughter helps him regain his moral vision and humanity. After reading his daughter's
Amis manages to squeeze in his incendiary comments about the post 9/11 milieu - "Anyone who looks remotely Arab should have their lives made an absolute torment for the rest of the century" (p. 161).
"Rictus" sighting (p. 128). Amis uses the word "epithalamium" several times in the book, a word he may have learned in Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March (p. 124).