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Old 18th Jul 2003, 21:45   #1
John Self
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Default Martin Amis

A generous benefactor, who knows I worship the ground that Little Mart's size sevens walk on, has provided me with an advance proof of his new novel, Yellow Dog. It's not out until September and another proof copy went on eBay this week for £50, but I shall be holding on to mine...

It's hard for me to review Yellow Dog adequately since I have to bear in mind that it took me three or four cracks each at his last two novels, The Information (1995) and Night Train (1997), to really come to love them. So there is a sense, I fear, in which Amis's books comply with the dictum of his part-time hero Nabokov (who job-shares with Saul Bellow), in that they cannot be read, only re-read. At least that's my excuse for feeling the familiar sense of dislocation at the end (what happened at the end of London Fields again? Or Money?), and irritation with the tricksy, sub-Tale of Two Cities attention-seeking opening paragraph:

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...

And then again I am reminded that I felt the same about Night Train's determinedly innovative opening ("I am a police..."), but that it later came to seem like sweet music to me - and even now, as I type out the start of Yellow Dog, it's beginning to veer into resonant familiarity. It's a paradox of linguistic stylists, like Amis or Winterson, that we need to make their books familiar by re-reading to counter the effect of their formal invention, because what we really want is some impossible ideal between something new and something well-known. (Is this how writers do posterity?)

And as for the confusion at the end, Yellow Dog sins less by actually having a pretty followable plot. In fact there are four main strands: Xan Meo, actor-turned-writer, gets bopped by goons and suffers a change in personality; the excellently-named Clint Smoker, sub-tabloid hack, pursues his own low ends, romantic and journalistic; King Henry IX ("Hal Nine") of England, suffers agonies wondering who is trying to blackmail him by sending him screencaps of his fifteen-year-old daughter Princess Victoria, in the nude; and a plane suffers a bizarre series of misfortunes brought about by the corpse of the spouse of one of its passengers...

In interviews during the writing of Yellow Dog, Amis said it was "so me, it feels like I'm going through my hoops." (As though to fend off criticism, he adds: "You can say of Graham Greene that he wrote about the same things but he just got older as he did them. The perspective is like a shadow moving across a lawn.") And sure enough, all the old Amis worries are here: pornography, ageing and "the only end of age", male violence, low-lifes, human insignificance in the face of astronomic happenings, and so on. To this he adds protracted riffs on marriage and one of the ends of marriage, which suggests he has not yet got his own divorce quite off his chest:

After a while, marriage is a sibling relationship - marked by occasional, and rather regrettable, episodes of incest.

His divorce had been so vicious that even the lawyers had panicked.

He had reached the polar opposite of love - a condition far more intense than mere hatred. You want the loved one dead; you want her plane to come down, and never mind about the others on board - those four hundred saps and losers...


By and large, Yellow Dog does not seem heavily populated with the twizzly phrasemaking we can so easily extract from any page of any other Amis novel (particularly the masterful Night Train). (Although I liked his to-the-nth-degree intensification and satire of email or text-speak: per4m, gr&iosity, pre10ce, 40issimo, verbo10, asi9...) And it will certainly not win Amis any new admirers - novitiates, start elsewhere. But it's luminously peopled, authentically Amis-ly unpleasant, and occasionally laugh-aloud funny. And, I hope and trust, best after another couple of runs through.
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Old 21st Jul 2003, 9:18   #2
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John, have you read Amis' journalism omnibus, The War Against Cliche?

It's one of those books which really make you realise how damn clever the guy is...

And is 'John Self' a reference tot he character in Money, or your real name?
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Old 21st Jul 2003, 12:26   #3
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The former: of course.

Yes I have made much play with anyone who will listen, of the fact that Yellow Dog is Little Mart's first novel in 6 years. However he has of course published four books in the interim, at least 3 of which probably gave me more diversion than Yellow Dog. These are his collection of stories, Heavy Water, his memoir, Experience, and the aforesaid War Against Cliché. He also published his Stalin book last year, Koba the Dread, though it left me cold.

The War Against Cliché is more or less indispensable. I pull it out and look it up so often I might as well just leave it on my bedside table. At the minute I am looking forward, tentatively, to reading his 20-page piece on Lolita once I finish it myself. Tentatively because it will of course reveal how paltry and feeble my own reading of it has been.
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Old 21st Jul 2003, 12:59   #4
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Wavid mentions The War Against Cliché regularly, and I think I shall have to invest.

And it delivers a thumping great attack on Hannibal so I understand(??), which must be worth the price of entry alone, I'd say (one of only a handful of books I've thrown across the room in anger; that and Weaveworld, obviously).
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Old 21st Jul 2003, 14:54   #5
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Yes, the Hannibal review in War Against Cliché is merciless and hilarious. I will extract some of it for you when I go home if I get a chance. The only thing I don't like about it is that my copy is hardback which is like lugging a phone book about and almost impossible to read comfortably in bed.

I also recommend his earlier collection of interviews and occasional "pieces," Visiting Mrs. Nabokov, particularly his piece on a snooker match with Julian Barnes.
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Old 21st Jul 2003, 19:15   #6
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The Hannibal review is 9 pages long so much as I would like to type it all out, the intro will have to do...

A Harris fan from way back, I got through the thing in the end, with many a weary exhalation, with much dropping of the head and rolling of the eyes and with considerable fanning of the armpits. In evaluating a novel with a lot of pig-interest (man-eating hogs, bred for savagery) it seems apt to bellow the assurance that Hannibal is, on all levels, a snorting, rooting, oinking porker, complete with twinkling trotters and twirlaround tail.

Try telling that to the Gadarene swine. The publication of Hannibal back in June cut the ribbon on a festival of stupidity. In the US the critical consensus was no more than disgracefully lenient. In the UK, though, the reviews comprised a veritable dunciad. There were exceptions, most of them (significantly, I think) written by women. Elsewhere the book pages all rolled over for Dr. Lecter. I sat around reading long lists of what Hannibal isn't ("a great popular novel," for instance), long lists of what it doesn't do, long lists of what it never gets close to pulling off or getting away with. The eager gullibility felt sinisterly unanimous. Is this the next thing? Philistine hip? The New Inanity?

There's not really much you can say to the miserable idiots who were "skewered" to their seats by ths harpoon of unqualified kitsch. And I found I could sit still while pundits talked about Harris's "real moral impact," how "every line ... is suffused with the sense of a titanic struggle with evil in its blackest form" despite the clear fact that the novel is helplessly voulu, sentimental, and corrupt. But when I see Hannibal enlisted as literature ("a plausible candidate for the Pulitzer Prize," "a monumental achievement") then my pen is obliged to flash from its scabbard.


Now buy it and read on...
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Old 21st Jul 2003, 20:18   #7
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The original name for this website was "The New Inanity", believe it or not!
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Old 21st Jul 2003, 21:32   #8
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Not...

This thread has sent me back to The War Against Cliché and I have just re-read Amis's brilliant essay on Larkin, Don Juan in Hull - ostensibly a review of Andrew Motion's biography A Writer's Life, but far wider than that. Heartbreaking and hilarious, as Larkin's poems were. It helps of course that Amis as a child knew Larkin, what with Larkin and Amis pere being such jolly good chums.

Get this book for this essay alone - oh and the Hannibal review...
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Old 23rd Jul 2003, 17:27   #9
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Yeah, I enjoyed that essay...I have had an interest in larkin since I went to Hull Uni and his name was everywhere.

My reading of the Motion biog was that is was fairly sympathetic, though as I read it a few years after it's original publication, I missed out on the controversy that it and the Letters stirred up.

On the topic of the hermit from Hull, there is a programme on BBC2 at 9.15 on the subject of his lovelife. Might be worth checking out, although the trailers do the completely obvious thing and quote This Be the Verse...

As this follows straight from the excellent In Search of Shakespeare, are the Beeb making 9 - 10 on a Saturday night their 'Literary Hour'?
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Old 23rd Jul 2003, 18:07   #10
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And Channel 4 with their History of the Novel from 8-9pm on Saturdays.
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