An Insult to the Brain?

Martin Amis' new novel isn't nearly the cerebral trauma you've been led to believe.

ANY AUTHOR CAN write the occasional stinker; only Martin Amis can draw such hostile criticism. Yellow Dog (Miramax, $24.95) has already been reviewed, widely, as an unrelenting, unforgivable, unredeemable piece of crap. Once The New York Times' Michiko Kakutani weighed in ("Martin Amis's new novel reads like a sendup of a Martin Amis novel written by someone intent on sabotaging his reputation"), the piling on began. How easy it is to take out an author at the knees once he's prostrate on the ground.

There's something wrong when the review, not the book, makes news. Certainly, Dog is not a novel to be liked, but neither is it a book to be disrespected. It's both vile and virile, crude and well crafted; all of its affronts to taste and language are perfectly calculated and weighted for effect. And Amis goes down swinging, which is more than most gutless, polite American novelists would do. Just imagine Eggers or Franzen actually admitting to base, unforgivable urgesmuch less describing them! That would be too uncouth, too uncool.

Dog is about as subtle as a dog humping your leg. Its London protagonist, the bizarrely named Xan Meo, suffers a brain injury in a seemingly random assault, which leaves the former "renaissance man" (actor, writer, musician) both damaged and disinhibited. Like the famous American brain-damage case, Phineas Gage, whose hemispheres were disconnected by a crowbar in 1848 (causing profound personality changes), Xan reverts to a primitive state of male behavior. It's like some kind of science experiment gone horribly, horribly wrong. ("Doctor! All the patient wants to do is smoke, drink, watch porn, and think of violence!") His neural code hacked, Xan 2.0 practically rapes his second wife, Russia (another bizarre Amis moniker in a novel spinning with nominal and pronominal confusion), and develops an unhealthy, borderline-sexual fascination with one of his young daughters.

Following Xan's attack, Amis works outward and backward to reconstruct his tangled family history. Dog is a confusing and often incoherent novel that demands, but does not reward, close scrutiny in this regard. I spent more than half its 339 pages thinking Xan was ChineseI mean, what is with that name? Not so, he's an East Ender, apparently, descended from gangsters but ascended to the media elite. The novel practically requires a character index and family tree (just who is quasi-incestuously related to whom?), but it's just that desire for mapped-out fiction that Amis is toying with. There's the concentrated pyschodrama of Dickens (lost relations, hidden paternity, long prison stretches), but none of the clarity of construction. Colorful secondary characters come and go, and you don't miss them when they've gone. Dog can be read as a kind of multigenerational revenge story, involving a hoodlum called Joseph Andrews who takes mighty offense at being confused with Fielding's Joseph Andrews; then there's some stuff about a sex scandal in the royal familyfast-forward through these useless pages.

XAN IS DAMAGED and debased, but so is the entire tabloided, pornofied world of Dog. It's stuffed full of Fleet Street fodder unruly royals, misbehaving soccer stars, random sniper attacksand infused with millennial dread; a comet looms in the piss-yellow sky, and a jetliner is on the verge of crashing for most of the book. But in this squalid, menacing climate you still feel for Xan, even if much of that feeling is revulsion. His goal is recuperation, to recover his better self, while his double is a vulgar tabloid writer with a "head like the shaved lump of a camel" who's trying to better himself via penis-enlargement surgery. OK, so Dog is an icky book, but that doesn't mean it's a contemptible book, as Kakutani and company would have it.

Instead, the novel reveals 21st-century, second-marriage, proud-papa Amis in all of his conflicted glory: He wields language exquisitely to nasty effect. (You never really know his characters until you go through a bowel movement with them.) Yet the book has merit in those few pages where Amis allows himself to dwelluncharacteristically, some might uncharitably sayon the pleasures of hearth and home and family. It's the kind of thing you could imagine angry young Amis rejectingtoo easy, too soft, too . . . old.

There's a simple, powerful, and emotionally satisfying structure at work here: exile and return. From his happy domestic perch, Amis makes it his duty to imagine the very worst sorts of things that might disturb his nest; that's why he wrote this crap novelit's a horror story in which Daddy becomes the monster. So from his happy domestic perch, Xan is made to suffer and ultimately understand "the obscenification of everyday life." Dog's accomplishment is to describe that everyday process of debasement in such alarmingly, imaginatively bold language that we share in Xan's relief when it's all finally over. And thus cleansed and relieved, we perhaps share some of his bruised humanity as well.

Martin Amis will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Fri., Nov. 21.

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