Yellow Dog
By Martin Amis
352 pp.; $14

Before he was hurled over the front of a motorbike at age 49, John Gardner initiated a remarkably rancorous debate among then-famous authors with On Moral Fiction (1979), a memorably seat-of-the-pants polemic in which he argued that literature and storytelling are—or can be—methods of ethical reasoning, upholding "valid models for imitation."

Everything hangs on that "valid," for these "models," for Gardner, were to be anything but the didactic playthings, pushed around by an author's pet ideologies or childhood grudges, that most readers imagine when they light on such phrases. Rather, the validity of the model is determined by the artist's process: Good writers, said Gardner, proceed through "endless blind experiments" with voice, style, subject, et. al., open-mindedly exploring the moral implications of each experiment (each character, each narrative tone, each moral assumption). It follows, then, that a bad novel will be a failure of process—an innovative style thoughtlessly adopted, or a major character whom the novelist has failed to understand, or a moral conclusion simply propounded by the narrator, without the test of dramatization.

For all the controversy engendered by Martin Amis' notably explicit novel, Yellow Dog—published here just over a year ago and released this month in paperback—it's in Gardner's sense of the term that the book morally offends. In fact, and curiously, Amis' latest production has some basically conservative points to make about the pandemic confusion that is contemporary sexual practice, points which are, by and large, well-taken. To have the satiric and stylistic mind behind Money (1984) and London Fields (1989)—a man whose rhythmically graceful yet skronkingly demotic voice has formatively influenced much recent British fiction—laud marital fidelity, and lambaste "the Borgesian labyrinth" of internet porn, is an interesting development, and to those who can stomach it, Yellow Dog offers some worthwhile perceptions on male sexual rapacity, not to mention the stylistic fireworks that are Amis' trademark. But Amis' failure to fully dramatize the struggle of his main character, Xan Meo, to stave off his ugliest, most possessive sexual-aggressive instincts robs the novel of the seriousness Amis seems intent upon.

This failure is not new to Amis, though rarely has it been so plain. London Fields, one of his most celebrated novels, attempted to engage world-historical issues (the death of love, the greenhouse effect) by the expedient of having the narrator lecture us. Amis repeated this trick in the otherwise enjoyable The Information (1995), where the narrator's blather about chaos and interstellar physics sat oddly next to the novel's Wile E. Coyote-meets-Road Runner portrait of literary rivalry. Wisely, Amis doesn't do this in Yellow Dog, instead giving us three satirically charged plots that, at least initially, rally his strengths.

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In one, actor and writer Xan Meo is sent into a spiral of atavism when he's beaten in the head by agents of an underworld kingpin, an event that turns out to have an odd connection (via the blood-debt logic of machismo) to Meo's family history. In another, King Henry IX (that's Hal 9 to you Kubrick buffs) faces blackmail when a nude video of his nubile daughter, Princess Victoria, is discovered. Finally—and this is where Amis displays his always-stunning acumen for the portrayal of lad-culture tack—there's the story of Clint Smoker, a misogynistic tabloid journalist who discovers Internet love with a reader, Kate (k8), who speaks only in Instant Messagese: "u ask about my loox. … i'm 5' 7", and i no U R a taller man, clint." (Clint's response, reported in the nice deadpan typical of Amis' treatment of the character: "Birds want tall nippers: Darwin and that.")

That a writer known better for style than structure has set himself the challenge of making these plot strands connect is impressive, enough so that one forgives him the not-exactly-new targets of his satire. (Clint Smoker is a slightly smarter version of London Fields's Keith; the dithering out-of-touch King is familiar from news reports even if one skips much of contemporary British writing; etc.) And it's even OK when we begin to sense, in lieu of the author lecturing us, his characters doing it for him, as in the suspiciously leisurely and well-framed discussions between Xan Meo and his wife Russia (and, later, the criminal Cora Susan) about his sudden regression.

It's forgivable because these characters, at certain moments, display hints of a depth Amis barely even roughs out. When Russia kicks him out with the words "It would not be true to say that you raped me last night, but it would be true to say that you tried," you expect divorce papers to immediately follow; when she concludes, instead, with an unexpected show of psychological strength—telling him "our marriage is not over" and demanding "incredible effort" from him in therapy, Xan understands what's at stake: "Fidelity was his lifeline."

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The unexpectedness of this turn of events raises the narrative stakes considerably. So does King Henry's anguished realization that he may be, somehow, at fault for what happened to Victoria. He writes, "I yearn to express the unconditional love and sympathy that I feel, but I just sound selfish and pompous. It's my poor character!" Yellow Dog's characters speak best in letters or notes: clever, chatty, and disarming at once. It's as if Amis has worked hardest at these junctures in the text.

What comes next, however, can only be judged a failure of nerve on the author's part. Kicked out of his house (he's begun to feel stirrings of a devouring lust for his toddler daughter) and unable to find work, Xan Meo takes a bit part in a porno movie being shot in California (a plot twist so thematically convenient it's unconvincing); he's followed there by Cora Susan, an ally of the gangster who originally attacked him, who plans to finish the revenge by seducing him, mailing photos to Russia and ruining his marriage. Xan and Cora—we are told rather than shown—"fall in love," though, and this somehow takes the edge off of Xan's regressive urges while simultaneously redeeming Cora.

The reader never sees how or why this happened; it's merely announced. Nor is Cora—or for that matter, Russia, or Princess Victoria or any other female creation in this book—drawn well enough to give the reader any idea how it may have happened. In earlier novels (Money being a prominent example) Amis discourses on the inadequacy of the idea of "motivation," saying that it doesn't adequately explain why people do what they do. This might be an interesting point, if it were clear what he means; as an excuse to avoid convincingly dramatizing his characters' actions and feelings, though, it sounds like humbug. It makes his characters ghosts, floating wanly through events in such a way as to offer opportunities for satire or moralizing. As for the porno setting of the novel's last chunk, it's there only so that Amis can share more of his clever observations with us—observations which are, moreover, mostly recycled from a 2002 Talk Magazine article on the same subject. By the end of the novel, he resembles a third-rate Oscar Wilde: a maker of smooth apothegms, a clever satirist who like most satirists is never far from preaching. We forget that Wilde, too, though he said that all bad poets are "sincere," wrote moral fables that are childlike in their earnestness.

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What of the novel's other putative problem: its explicitness? Some of Amis' observations, for which the novel is a prop, have to do with what he supposes is a natural male instinct to possess: thus a father's (Xan Meo's) protectiveness, when certain socialized barriers evaporate, can become pedophilia, a rage to possess. It's an interesting argument. Should a famous author be socially sanctioned, then, when he explicitly describes a character's pornographic thoughts about a toddler-aged daughter to make these points? I don't see how anyone could be titillated by these scenes—though the thing with perversion is that one never can, unless one shares the perversion—but what's less in doubt is that few readers will want to read them, or feel that Yellow Dog is a literary experience singular enough to merit the revulsion.

When John Gardner was in a somewhat more temperate mood, he revisited some of On Moral Fiction's arguments in the subtler, more positive The Art of Fiction, a handbook for aspiring writers. There he argues that the novelist ought to think twice about portraying anything in her fiction that the greatest writers—Chaucer, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, the authors of the Bible—would avoid. It seems a decent makeshift rule for avoiding the trivial (all those scenes Philip Roth sets in the bathroom) or the morbid; after all, there's little in the range of human experience that even the Bible evades. There is something private in human sexuality, something that makes it unportrayable; the very act of observation distorts, as Wendell Berry has argued. In a novel that is occasionally eloquent on the dinginess of a culture of primped, prompted, scripted, and exposed sexuality, the portrayal of actual relationship—the love that we are told develops between Xan and Cora, and between Russia and Xan—seems to elude the author, and his characters' personalities fly right out the window with it.

Philip Christmanmaintains the Virtual Cantina weblog.

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Books & Culture Corner and Books & Culture's Book of the Week, from Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture: A Christian Review, appears regularly on Tuesdays at Christianity Today. Earlier editions include:

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