Martin Amis' new novel: sex, sex, and more sex.

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 18 2003 1:36 PM

XXX

Martin Amis wonders if pornography is ruining your life.

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As readers of Time's Arrow will remember, Amis is at his most brilliant when exploiting paradoxes like these, those moments when life seems to make as much sense if it's run backward or turned inside out. As when Karla White says of herself and other X-rated stars: "When we watch porno, we fast-forward through the sex to get to the acting." Or when the gangster Joseph Andrews describes Britain's postwar economy: "Things opened up beautifully after the war, with all the austerity."

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The major drama of Yellow Dog, involving Xan, centers on a more gruesome paradox: The way the world often rewards wanton abuse of power and leaves its victims unaware that they are even victims—in sex as in crime. This means impunity, which sparks a mimetic cycle of sin. Amis has in recent years been interested in child abuse, which shows up not just in certain eerie scenes in The Information but also in Experience (2001), where he described his own molestation at the hands of one of his parents' houseguests in New Jersey. And in Yellow Dog, when a discombobulated Xan begins to worry about his daughters' mortality, his thoughts travel in macabre directions. "I can't protect them," he thinks. "They're mine, and I can't protect them. So why not rend them? Why not rape them? ... He thought he knew, now, why an animal would eat its young. To protect them—to put them back." This is only the beginning of the hell that Xan's mind becomes, as he begins to superimpose images of his daughters at play with the unnatural acts of pornography.

Amis has a deadly serious moral point to make here. But it is by no means certain that anyone will want to hang around to hear it. Pornography so suffuses the book that the narrative voice itself is never uncontaminated by it. ("As he climbed from the car a boobjob of a raindrop gutflopped on his baldspot.") Every observation partakes of the solitude of pornography. Surely this spiritual claustrophobia is just what Amis means to evoke, and the way Amis manages to leach all moral sensibility out of the novel's voice is an extraordinary technical achievement. But it is a self-defeating one. Yellow Dog is likely to be least endurable to those most sympathetic to Amis' anguish. Since, in the world Amis creates, casual exposure to pornographic images puts people on a steep and slippery slope, one wonders what he thinks he's doing in forcing such imagery on the reader. Amis' subject matter so raises the stakes that this must be either a moral book or a dirty one. It winds up being both. The book is the equivalent of one of those partial-birth-abortion posters waved around at political conventions. It unleashes more than most intelligent readers can be expected to assimilate—and certainly more than any self-respecting reader should be asked to endure.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard. His book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West will be published in the United States in July.

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