Juvenal called his book of satires a `farrago', and the word fits Yellow Dog very well. It's satire, it's a farrago of many different themes and plots, and it's a very clever farrago because Martin Amis is a very clever little man.
I shall say immediately that I didn't much care for the book, and I shall try to explain why. However I don't criticise either book or author for being clever, for instance in having so many threads to the narrative. Amis's skill and professionalism ensure that the variety of plots and threads combine very well. If any of us find it a bit of an effort to hold the thing together in our heads, that's our own look-out in my opinion. It is not the job or duty of any author to write down to any sort of common denominator. What would be an interesting essay or exam question for advanced Eng Lit students might be `What is this book about?' `Yellow Dog' is the title of a column by a downmarket tabloid journalist, but a yellow dog puts in an appearance right at the end in a more serious context. Various press summaries that I have seen select as some kind of central theme the personality change undergone by one character, but, really, who are they to say, and why should that be the main narrative? Why should it have priority over King Henry IX, for instance?
I am not going to stick my head above the parapet and offer my own opinion about what the main plot is, perhaps because I have no clear opinion on the matter. However one definite common factor is the satirical observation that pervades the story. There are brilliant take-off's of Prince Charles, man-of-the-people journalism, footballers' statements, tough-guy criminals, text messaging, very likely of the pornography industry too, and probably indeed more types of people and types of culture are being mimicked than I have detected. What about north London intellectuals? What Russia (a female character) writes to her husband about father/daughter interactions definitely has a serious side to it, but I'd be surprised if there is not a bit of mockery of north London chatter there as well. It's all very clever, as I said, but it gets on my nerves after a while. Imagine if you will some smartyboots type of guy who specialises in taking everyone off. He quickly becomes a bore, and often a downright objectionable bore. I loved a lot of the detail and I certainly admired the acuteness of much of it, but I soon got enough of it.
The press clippings adorning my edition are nothing if not fulsome. One feature that comes in for considerable acclaim is the humour `Extravagantly funny...' `As funny as Dead Babies...' `...devastating comic gift'. We are not devastated, we fear. In fact I laughed at precisely three things in the whole 140 pages of the novel, and two of those are not of Amis's authorship. Certainly he had a good instinct when he chose to tell us that Henry VIII had a Groom of the Stool to attend his bowel movements, and I had to go along with the derision at the sentiment `Flowers are God smiling at us' when uttered by the monstrous gangsters the Kray twins. Full marks to the author himself for choosing the name He (pron `Her') for a Chinese erstwhile mistress of the King. Otherwise I found the humour about as funny as dead Gazans or dead Zimbabweans for the most part.
It must be quite clear that all this is a purely personal reaction of my own, and I do not wish to pass it off as objective criticism or evaluation. If asked what I liked most about the story I would pick out the strong element of fantasy, and I am quite prepared to rate that as more important than the narcissistic smartness that I found wearisome. Where I see that others have found fault with the book, namely in its complexity, I will come to the author's defence, and indeed I have already done so at the start of this notice. What I have tried to do, as fairly as I can, is to convey something of the flavour of the book. Not my own favourite flavour, but no reason why it should not be yours.