I came to Amis late. I wasn't born when he published his most esteemed book, Money, and I was a 4-year-old with no great passion for Holocaust novels when Time's Arrow was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Amis has always divided critics (all writers worth their salt do), and by the time I read him in the late-noughties the naysayers were beginning to form a grumbling consensus. I quickly found that loving Amis meant having to fight his corner.
Nothing goaded the grumblers more than Amis's 2003 novel Yellow Dog. Received with much hostility, it got widely bashed as Amis's worst effort to date. But Yellow Dog is in fact a small 21st-century masterpiece, humorlessly mishandled by many critics, and ranks with Money and London Fields as his best.
Yellow Dog is a manically structured novel made up of four competing narratives. These tell the stories of Xan Meo (one-time model husband and father, turned volatile thug); Henry IX (King of England, struggling to suppress a sex tape of his daughter, Princess Victoria); Clint Smoker (scurrilous tabloid hack, in search of love); and "Flight CigAir 101" (doomed commercial plane traveling from London to Houston with a dead body in its hold). The sections interchange rapidly, each bringing its own internal decorum to bear on the narrative; its own peculiar mix of style, perspective and mood. And in this formal suppleness lies the novel's greatest strength: its aliveness to different textures and tones of experience. The stories subtly accrete, like worlds within worlds, making Yellow Dog Amis' most dimensional novel, as well as his most demanding.
Critics and readers looking for rounded, sympathetic characters are perhaps destined to never get on with Amis. But Yellow Dog reminds us — entertainingly, and with immense skill — of an overlooked literary truth about character: that character exists within and through style. Style is a habitation, in which reader and characters alike must dwell. Once inside the febrile worlds of Yellow Dog, Amis's characters make perfect sense. Like Nabokov (whose influence on Amis is profound), once said: "In a book, the reality of a person, or object, or a circumstance depends exclusively on the world of that particular book. An original author always invents an original world, and if a character or an action fits into the pattern of that world, then we experience the pleasurable shock of artistic truth, no matter how unlikely the person or thing may seem if transferred into what book reviewers, poor hacks, call 'real life.' "
Amis has the prose to give us this "pleasurable shock." A dead duck floats in a canal "head down with its feet sticking up like the arms of a pair of spectacles;" a wasp weaves towards a character "like a punchy old southpaw, with its half-remembered moves, its ponderous fakes and feints;" and of a homeless man and his dog, Amis writes: "It was almost as if the dog was his strength, his manhood, surfacing erect from his slumped body." Oddly teasing and indulgent at the same time, the novel delivers these kinds of sensual thrills on a line-by-line basis.
Yellow Dog revels in the malleability and the magic of the "what if" as much as the "what is." In the novel, Amis talks of "the obscenification of everyday life" — a piercing phrase, by which he also means the over-simplification and relativization of everyday life, perfectly captured by the inane, nursery-rhyme inflections of the book's opening line: "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 ... " However, Amis doesn't merely diagnose and, despite criticisms to the contrary, he avoids instruction. Instead, he counters this "obscenification" with a richly particularized style that is lucid and attentive, and which forms its own critique of early 21st century life — a style that can both illuminate and create in subtle, reflexive ways.
Ignore the naysayers. Yellow Dog is a novel whose prose fondles details and offers up surprising angles of vision, so that we might "experience the pleasurable shock of artistic truth" again and again.
Ben Masters is the author of Noughties.