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Amis manages to irritate and enthrall in equal measure

Sunday, November 16, 2003

By Irina Reyn

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 ..."


"Yellow Dog"

By Martin Amis,
Miramax ($24.95)


So begins Martin Amis' first novel in more than five years, an uncompromising work that makes no attempt to please, but rather strives to disorient, mesmerize and repel.

The novel's narration veers amid a multitude of characters saddled with the same kind of surrealistic names we encountered in Amis' earlier novel, "London Fields."

There is Xan Meo, a minor celebrity whose "perfect husband" status is forever altered after an attack by thugs at a favorite watering hole. It turns out that the hit was ordered by the sinister Joseph Andrews, a dangerous man convinced that Meo's best-selling book meant to finger Andrews as a Las Vegas mob boss rather than reference the Henry Fielding novel.

We are also introduced to Clint Smoker, a yellow journalist whose search for love is handicapped by underwhelming physical attributes. Smoker is slightly more successful in his professional career at the tabloid, The Morning Lark, a rag whose readers are affectionately referred to by the staff as "wankers."

We travel into the tormented inner circle of the monarchy, where we meet Henry England, a king less concerned with his royal duties than the well-being of his pubescent daughter, whose modesty is compromised by a ransomed nude videotape.

In the skies, there is a comet that threatens to destroy the Earth and a plane sabotaged by a dead man. He nevertheless attempts to wreak vengeance on his widow, who's seated in 2B.

This synopsis barely skims the surface of this wildly erratic novel's contents. It is sure to confound both Amis' longtime fans and novices who seek to access his oeuvre through this willfully opaque work.

Yet many of his provocative concerns are lurking in the folds of the prose:

The uneasy cohabitation of men and women in a post-feminist age, the cultural status of pornography ("just filmed prostitution or is it something more gladiatorial?") and the ubiquity of celebrity when "fame had so democratized itself that obscurity was felt as a deprivation or even a punishment."

This novel also touches on the author's preoccupation with the former Soviet Union (his last excellent book was on the extent of Stalin's atrocities) and the lessons its dissolution imparts.

Indeed, the novel is permeated by an apocalyptic claustrophobia reminiscent of Andrei Bely's "Petersburg," where the dread of revolutionary violence is palpable on each page. So it is not a coincidence that Joseph Andrews is referred to as "The Decembrist" and Xan Meo's wife (with "the aerodynamic bone structure") is named Russia.

For Amis, the memory of 20th-century brutality must be confronted, often by looking eastward as well as inward.

While the book is stocked with fearless pronouncements and bold, off-the-cuff narration, its manic meandering and distance from flesh-and-blood resonance keeps the reader at arm's length.

Frequent sparks of perceptive ingenuity are dampened by jerky plot digressions, filler observations and empty cultural references:

"The foamline wore a sneer, then a grin, then a sneer, then a grin: phantoms of the opera, phantoms of paradise."

Yet Amis continues to fascinate with his willingness to engage big ideas and to experiment thematically and structurally -- even if he misses the mark, he manages to leave something of value behind.

One emerges from "Yellow Dog" exhausted, frustrated maybe, but never regretful.

Irina Reyn is a Pittsburgh-based writer and the book review editor of the literary Web site.

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