Yellow Dog by Martin Amis

“Male violence did it.” Martin Amis has a bit of a reputation for making sweeping, declarative statements like this one that ends the first paragraph of  Yellow Dog (Mirimax, 339 pages). I’ve read all of Amis’ books except Pregnant Widow and Koba the Dread (on my list, next) and I’m very familiar with the Amis conception of gender.  I can make sweeping generalizations about his Men and his Women. Amis’ men tend to think about sex 99 percent of the time.  They all struggle with inconveniences like having to order dinner, say, while thinking about a blow job from the waitress. On a deeper more primitive level, so we find in Yellow Dog, men aren’t just attracted to attractive women but to all women, to all females in fact, even their own daughters, preschoolers and toddlers, about whom they fantasize not just sexually, but violently too.  Civilized men, men with language, have managed to rise above this deep-seated amorality and can behave normally, even well.  But it is a struggle. Xan Meo, the hero of Yellow Dog, suffers a head injury — a man beats him up — and afterward, his linguistic abilities diminishing, he finds that he reverts to a kind of primitive maleness, and he has serious trouble controlling his desires for sex and violence.

Women, Amis thinks, aren’t like men at all. They put up with men. Amis may think of himself as something of a feminist because he writes about how awful men can be to women.  He wrote Other People from the point of view of a woman (also with a head injury). This was his least successful novels after Night Train, which was also written from the point of view of a woman. In my opinion, a feminist perspective does not go on representing women as victims.

If Amis isn’t very good with the “female” point-of-view (whatever that is), Amis is excellent at creating Dickensian petty-criminal characters, male, who often epitomize his conception of men generally. In Yellow Dog, we have the unforgettable portrait of Joseph Andrews for whom violence is the normal state of existence. He has spent most of his adult life in prison.  He has developed an expectation that his every action will be followed by punishment, as naturally as inhaling follows exhaling. Relating his life story, he says,

“There ain’t a form of punishment meted out in His Majesty’s Prisons that I’ve not took. Bread and water, deprivation of mattress, Refractory Block, PCFO. In the hospital wing they’ve give me the Blinder and the Crapper. They slip it in your coffee. The Blinder ain’t so bad — you just go all legless like. But the Crapper … you can kill a man in a week in that manner. I’ve had the Cat and the Birch. It’s a fallacy that I used to whistle while they was giving me the corporal. But on the thirteenth stroke I used to do a lovely yawn, and he’d come in with a will on the final five. Trying to make you cry out. No chance. … These are men who live to see other men confined. Like they take away your Association on a technicality — and there’s that little smirk. You see that look on they face, and you know you’ll have to do them. Just a question of when. And then of course they do you. Fact of life.”

While Andrews is funny, though depraved, Cora Susan, a leading female in the story, is not funny and is depraved.  The victim of male violence (her father repeatedly raped her), she has grown up to be a pornstar and tries to convince the Xan Meo to rape his own small girls. “Introduce them to the void,” she says.

The violence and the depravity are so overwhelming in this book, I must admit it was a bit of a struggle to get through. I really like Amis, but I didn’t always enjoy hanging out with his characters.  They are often tiring, even though Amis’ skill as a comic writer usually makes it possible for me to spend time with and laugh at people with whom I would not spend ten minutes with in real life.

Not soon enough after the story descends to its lowest abyss —  Xan starts leering at and dreaming about his daughter — Xan finally makes a recovery from his head injury. He becomes a normal responsible husband and father again. This supplies a welcome resolution to a plot line that is really too tense most of the way through. I literally gave  a grateful sigh, but I don’t quite forgive Amis for taking it so far.

I may be naive, but I don’t think that primitive Maleness, such as Amis describes, lurks in every modern male.  And I tend to think women and men have a lot more in common, as humans, than Amis seems to think they have. But I don’t want to criticize his tendency to draw extreme characterizations of individuals. Amis does the depraved male stereotype better than any writer I know.  There are, in “real” life, people so far at the extreme end of a stereotype that they hardly seem real.  Amis gets this down very well. The mistake is to assume that what is true of one perverted Dickensian male character must be true of all men, deep down, to a greater or lesser degree.

“Male violence did it.”  When I read this line I felt that it implicated all men. But perhaps the qualifying term isn’t there to say that violence is always male, but, instead to call attention to the fact that there are different types of violence, one of which might be described as “male.”   While I realize that most people who are violent are male and that being male usually means larger and stronger and therefore capable of more damaging violence,  I would not want to call it “male.”  Amis might look to Dickens’  portrait of  Madame Defarge and to the role that women played in the French Revolution to see violence as violence, neither male or female.

Victoria N. Alexander, author of Smoking Hopes (1996).

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