Andrew O' Hagan's book is set in the fabular fictive tradition of animals offering up razor-sharp perceptions on the often silly world of human beings. In this instance, the parallel universe is presented to us by Marilyn Monroe's Maltese terrier, Maf.
Such anthropomorphism dates back to satires by Cervantes, Swift and Orwell, as O'Hagan self-consciously points out in a footnote. So we ready ourselves for Maf's wit and wisdom on Marilyn, 1960s America and the Hollywood milieu around whose ankles he yaps.
Yet, as clever as he may be – and Maf can mount lecturn treatises on most 20th-century intellectual movements - he stops short of any searing insights on the lot of mankind, and a fully formed story is often circumvented by expositions and mini essays. It is clear that Maf is an urbane dog of unparalleled lineage - given to Monroe by Frank Sinatra, given to Sinatra by Natalie Wood's mother, given to her by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and that his task is to reappraise the last two years of Monroe's life from a dog's-eye view.
The idea came to O'Hagan during a New York auction when six Polaroid pictures of Maf turned up for sale. "There are times when it might take an animal's perspective to restore, in literary terms, a character pitifully drained of their humour and humanity, even a person as drained as Marilyn Monroe", he has said. Yet she remains maddeningly elusive, all vulnerability and half-whispered exclamations. Maf delivers the frothiest verdicts while nestling in her arms or entangled in her Ferragamo stilettos, telling us what we already knew: she was depressed, in therapy, struggling to be seen as a serious actress, disappointed in love after her split from Arthur Miller.
There are no real imaginative leaps on her relationship with Kennedy or any of the foggier areas of her private life. Maf was apparently the last to see her alive on 5 August 1962, but O'Hagan's story ends before that point, so ducking out of a possibly fruitful fictive opportunity.
O'Hagan has written about his Monroe fixation when, as an 11-year-old, his father brought home a Norma Jean biography. This book delivers a heartfelt but starry-eyed appreciation, which is mawkish at its worst: "I looked at her and realised this was our love story, too... I believe she was like Keats in that way: her small efforts spoke of beauty and truth, in ways that made her eternal."
Maf's inner musings, and those of his fellow animals (bees ruminate Zukofsky, flies speak of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer) are witty at times, whimsical at others. At one point, he states that his hero, Leon Trotsky "would have been a great interior decorator: after all, decoration is all about personality and history, the precise business of making, discovering, choosing the conditions of life and placing them just so."
Animal memoirs have shown us that non-human narrators can embody great depth and humanity - from Kafka's anti-hero on a quest for truth in Investigations of a Dog to James Lever's chimpanzee story Me Cheeta. The problem with Maf is that he never comes to embody a soul, remaining part-witness, part-eavesdropper, unbelievable until the end.Reuse content