Friday, January 02, 2009
I had read it before, but at speed; this Christmas, though, gave me the opportunity to read it again. And so I did. It made me think: why do I keep going back to Martin Amis? I suppose it is because I like the idea of Amis. I just can’t seem to get my actually-reading-Amis ducks in a row.
What am I talking about? Yellow Dog (2003) that’s what. Science Fictional (alt-historical) or at the least satiric-phantasmagorical, Yellow Dog is set in a 2003 in which Henry IX sits on the throne of England—his wife is in a coma and his 15-year-old daughter subject to leering, video tabloidesque intrusions into her bathtime frolics. Henry is one character in Amis’s tale; another is Clint Smoker, a hack from a sub-Sun rag called Morning Lark. Another character is the improbable film-star, novelist, rock-star, ideal husband Xan Meo who gets clonked on the bonce and undergoes a change of personality into an obnoxious spoiling-for-a-fight alpha male. Then there’s Joseph Andrews, an elderly Brit-gangster even less believable than those delineated by Guy Ritchie. Hard to imagine, I know, but there you go. Amis sets these different storylines running, but seems clueless as to how to bring them back together again: he ends up literally smashing them into one another—very crudely handled. There’s also an underpowered conspiracy plotline that’s supposed to link them all, but which fails to do so.
It almost goes without saying that Yellow Dog is a terrible novel. Ah, but it is terrible in interesting ways, in ways (indeed) that make it a more worthwhile read than any number of much better but deadened-by-competence pieces of fiction. It is, for instance, not a shabby, or ill-considered or hastily put-together piece of work. Indeed it could have done with being rather more hastily rendered: much of it (clogging its heart with the cholesterol of earnestness) is a series of leaden sermons about masculinity, pornography, pedophilia and the relationship between the genders: clearly very long-pondered if essentialist and wrongheaded. Also the prose has clearly been strenuously worked through. There are moments—images, and occasionally whole sentences—where this work has resulted in actual good writing:
The mist had lifted; out to sea a wildhaired wave collapsed, not all in one piece but laterally, from left to right, like a trail of gunpowder under the torch. 
Lovely, that. Amis is good with accounts of the sky, too. During a thunderstorm: ‘arthritic feelers of lightning’ lancing out ‘forming coastlines with many fjords’ . But there’s something about this sort of writing:
The bright sky was torn by contrails in various states of dissolution, some, way up, as solid looking as pipecleaners, others like white stockings, discarded, flung in the air … others like breakers on an inconceivably distant shore. 
The more you read, the more it starts to dawn on you: Amis can write nicely when he’s describing stuff that’s far away. The further away, indeed, the better, as far as Amis is concerned. But when he gets close to people his good writing goes all whiffy and off: congeals into a peculiar ugliness that zooms straight past the human organ of imagination without connecting: ‘as he climbed from the car a boobjob of a raindrop gutflopped on his baldspot’ . Or else he falls into a polysyllabic verbosity that very markedly falls short of being Nabokovian (‘there I am,’ he said, with a certain finicky jauntiness embedded in his indignation’, 272).
That’s the problem, right there. Amis has written a novel about people. Novels, after all, are about people. But, in numerous ways (although with a remarkably consistent intensity) Amis despises people. And, you know what? It turns out you can’t write neoDickensian social satire—the thing Yellow Dog egregiously strives to be—when you’re hobbled by such a thoroughly unDickensian contempt for human beings. ‘Dickens’, as a shorthand, is something like the opposite of contempt for people. But more than that, it turns out you can’t write Hogarthian, or even Boschian, phantasmagoria if you’re handicapped by that mode of contempt. You might be able to achieve a Waugh-like sharpness, but to do that you’d need to have Waugh’s extraordinary prosaic self-control and intensity, and Amis doesn’t have it. His objection to the porn industry (and my, what a hard-to-hit target Amis has lighted upon with that one) is gender-essentialist. In his world men all love pornography and women all hate it. In a peculiar little riff he speculates that maybe ‘women wouldn’t mind pornography if reproduction took pace by some other means: by sneezing, say, or telepathy.’ Then he thinks again. ‘But maybe it wasn’t that. Maybe women just couldn’t bear to see it travestied, the act of love that peopled the world’ . So to recap: sex is good if it is about ‘love’ and ‘reproduction’ and a travesty if it is not. And actually, I doubt even Amis believes his ‘maybe’ has inoculated him against the infection of loony rightwingnuttery.
Yellow Dog tries, often, to be funny; but it is not funny at all: its humour either sneering and hateful, or else—an aristocrat with a servant called Love—feebly Blackadder-derivative. Its play, mostly wordplay, is lumpish and continually reaching for a significance beyond its grasp. Of the inherent sexism of porn’s fascination with the money shot: ‘they call it the pop-shot. They don’t call it the mom-shot.’ Yes. Right. I’ll go ahead and file that with ‘they call it mascara, they don’t call it pascara’ and ‘they call it cargo even though it’s carried by lorries and not by cars at all.’
This novel aims to say penetrating things about the world we live in and it doesn’t. It’s a crashing, and an ugly novel. Turns out that even the harshest satire needs a ground in common humanity; that without a sprinkle of the yeast of sentimentality the dough of the Jeremiad will not rise. But I’ll say this: I was glad to have re-read it. There are novels that are ugly on account of bald authorial incompetence, although not too many of those get published. Then there are novels that are pretty (even beautiful), or at the least smooth, or airbrushed, or polished, or diecast or neatly plastic-moulded. Lots of those. But it’s rare, and rather aesthetically bracing (in a good way), to encounter a novel by a thoroughly competent novelist that is, nevertheless, so gnarlily and outrageously ugly. Valuable, in a way. I could embroider upon the merit of this aesthetic of ugliness, but perhaps I’ve gone on long enough.
I’ve written this generality many times before, but ... didn’t every well-known literary writer of the late 20th century write at least one SF book that wasn’t called SF? And weren’t those books almost universally bad? (Exception: Gravity’s Rainbow.) There’s something about the arrogance and lack of depth involved in hitting a well-known SF trope with no appreciation for its past use that makes for a bad start. It’s like those managers of the late 20th century whose companies tried to become huge conglomerates because they thought that all you needed was managerial skill and you could manage anything. Or, perhaps, like those right-wing politicians of the late 20th who were sure that you didn’t need to know anything about government in order to run it if your goal was to pare it down, after all.
I’ll guess, for instance, that the book shows no discernible influence from The Man in the High Castle. It should be impossible for anyone to write an alt-history without confronting that book, just as it should be impossible for anyone to, say, write about someone caught in a universal, unfeeling bureaucracy without confronting Kafka. Critics can, maybe, get away with the snobbery of not knowing anything about SF, because no one really cares whether critical writing works or not. But an author who is going to write SF, even if he or she doesn’t think it’s SF, can’t.
This isn’t Amis’s only dalliance with sf. He raided Dick’s Counter Clock World for his Time’s Arrow. This, though, doesn’t contradict what you say, Rich; indeed given how feeble Time’s Arrow is, it reinforces it.
I’m just finishing an essay on Amis and science fiction. “Ugly Babies” is sf-y. The short story collections “Einstein’s Monsters” and “Heavy Water” contain many sf-style pieces. Amis was sf critic for the Observer for 5 years in the mid-70s. And of course, Amis’ style is coeval with that “Martian School of Poetry”.
Although I’d say “Time’s Arrow” was honestly cribbed from “Slaughter House 5”, there there’s some shtick about the effect of war, when run backwards, is life-affirming, with bombs dismantled and people comming to life across Europe.
What’s your essay for, Matthew?
A writer’s true adversaries are those that eat from the inside. It’s the rust that accretes, the synapses that no longer fire, the fading of acuity – the deep wide focus necessary to keep track of the moving parts of a long narrative. ‘An ageing writer wonders if he has lost the ability to visualise a completed work, in its complex spatial relations,’ Updike observes. ‘He should have in hand a provocative beginning and an ending that will feel inevitable. Instead, he may arrive at his ending nonplussed, the arc of his intended tale lying behind him in fragments. The threads have failed to knit. The leap of faith with which every narrative begins has landed him not on a far safe shore but in the middle of the drink.’
from Wolcott on Updike, who escapes this phenomenon; the reception of Amis’ subsequent work isn’t encouraging.
Isn’t the title of the novel “Dead Babies”?
By the way, Amis has written some good SF. For instance, the story “The Immortals” in “Einstein Monsters” is a very funny take on the immortality theme and a parody of a famous Borges’ short-story to boot.
Amis being an SF critic for 5 years would have to discredit my generalization, at least in his respect. Apparently his problems are his own, and not the result of general ignorance about his themes.
Why good lord, yes, “Ugly Babies” was an error, meant “Dead Babies”. I was distracted by which Quality Street to have next. If you discount the rather deliberately squalid effects of Amis’s take on sexuality and society, then the ramshackle quality of “Yellow Dog”’s plot with its somewhat blatant satirical future, comically over-worked names, and occasional crashing literary allusions, is possibly Amis’s take on the efforts of his favourite sf writer. I wouldn’t say Amis was necessarily consciously thinking of him when writing, but his work was probably knocking about as a model. It’s not Ballard, Burroughs, or even Vonnegut – since at their best Amis explains how they fall outside his definition of what sf does best.
Adam - the intention is to finish the piece by the end of next week and then see if it’s acceptable to “Strange Horizons”.
Amis can still write; he just needs to figure out who to write for again. Knowing “who” will determine “what” and “how”. I only hope the faint praise for House of Meetings didn’t encourage him to keep fishing for neo-Nabokov-heads (Updike’s former target demographic, now hogged by Aleksander Hemon)...
Yellow Dog fails for reasons mostly to do with the relationship between an emblematically famous writer and his audience, I think. Because Amis was always (and will always be, probably) good for great sentences (most of which are either Bible-grade aphorisms or feature a freakishly prodigious act of description, whatever the target), the problem with Yellow Dog’s conception-and-execution (ambiguity intended) wasn’t technical. I believe it was psycho-social. I believe a phantom feedback loop between Amis and an *imaginary* audience egged him on.
Yellow Dog was a skimpy, awkward book because it was an over-confident act of compression, boiled down to inside jokes his avid audience was *sure* to chuckle and nod over. Only, the audience that had carried Amis on its shoulders up-to-and-well-into the Cool Brittania/New Lad bubble was gone. Amis was still famous… but his audience wasn’t, suddenly. Amis was famous on paper but his audience had lost its cachet and disbanded (try referring to yourself as a “New Lad” on a highstreet jostling with 13-year-old Jack-the-Rippers). There was no longer such a thing as a LOADED or FHM reader who would *get* (or bother pretending to get, more like) the “Joseph Andrews” reference. There was no longer such a thing (if there ever was) as a female reader who would *get* the “Joseph Andrews” reference and yet not mind Amis’ giga-boob fetish.
The pedophilia passages in Yellow Dog are a powerful clue that Amis was writing for a kind of hipster (capable of seeing, with *detachment*, the deeper “truth” of the atavism Xan is acting out after a Gilliganish, de-civilizing blow to the head) that he must have believed existed in numbers sufficient to make the book a respectable hit. He probably thought his bravery in going there (don’t forget the faint fecal streak he put in the bowl of Nicola’s toilet in London Fields; he prides himself on being the subtle first) would be praised and admired by sharp, un-freak-out-able readers. I think he thought there was an army of these hip-in-an-extremely-particular-way readers (ie, not afraid to process puns *or* pedophilia) that he had brought with him all the way from the 1980s. The rapturous reception for twinkly, educational, sentimentalist Experience should have told him something.
Yellow Dog was meant, I believe, to be a bold new move (21st century Rabelais) and a special tribute to his fans: a goodie bag of the inside jokes (mostly corny) and lavish compliments (to their intelligence) for being intelligent enough to receive the book as intended.
Instead, Yellow Dog was a high dive into an empty mosh pit. Or, no: the pit wasn’t empty: it was full of Old Lads and New Agers and late-model-McEwan fans (all already traumatized by 9/11) who had no idea what they were supposed to do when Amis (with too much confidence, and his eyes closed) jumped.
Nicely put. I suppose I agree about the feedback loop point; although I can also believe (this is mere speculation, of course) that Amis’s work in the Media had given him enough fishbowl distortion of his sense of The Way We Are Now that he genuinely believed Yellow Dog was a razor-sharp and perfectly accurate caliban’s-face-in-the-mirror exercise. But actually one reason the book fails is that it doesn’t build a believable world; it manages neither invention nor mimesis. Plus it can’t scrub off the sense that Amis satirising Clint Smoker et al is simultaneously thinking that we (you and I Steven and everybody else who reads his novel) are indeed actually wankers. He has clocked Nabokov’s patrician disdain, but in trying to emulate it he can only manage a sweaty digust and contempt, and that’s not the same thing at all.
"He has clocked Nabokov’s patrician disdain, but in trying to emulate it he can only manage a sweaty digust and contempt, and that’s not the same thing at all.”
Bulls-eye, as they say in the Wild West. It just can’t be faked, can it, that foil-thin noblesse oblige? (laugh)
I’d welcome any recommendations of good Amis, as I’ve only read Time’s Arrow and wasn’t impressed.
Rich: didn’t every well-known literary writer of the late 20th century write at least one SF book that wasn’t called SF? And weren’t those books almost universally bad?
I don’t know about that, but I have a post at my blog on Doris Lessing’s The Cleft, which seems to belong to the category of non-SF novels that were called SF (others are The Children of Men and Never Let Me Go). I didn’t expect to like it, but I did. Lessing, of course, has written real SF novels but I don’t really think this is one of them.
I found The Information to be worth the time; the short stories (eg “The Immortals” or “State of England") can be quite good.
London Fields is superb. I’ve highlighted quite a few of Steven’s ‘Bible-grade’ aphorisms here: