It has been said that if cats could talk, they wouldn't. But actually, says Mafia Honey – the Maltese terrier hero and narrator of Andrew O'Hagan's fourth novel – they versify. "We [dogs] usually hate cats, not for the typical reasons, but because they show an exclusive preference for poetry over prose." Butterflies also have a Nabokovian turn of phrase, there are bedbugs who profess to have Russian souls, and a fly drowning in soup who accepts his fate philosophically, spouting Schopenhauer in a thick Bronx accent. Perhaps it's a failure of our imagination if we humans don't hear them. Or, as one Jack Russell argues, perhaps it suits us, and our speciesist assumptions of superiority, not to listen. Listening, Maf says, is a dog's greatest talent.
Maf's picaresque memoir begins in the Sussex home of Vanessa Bell, where his formative years are spent absorbing the tastes and opinions of the Bloomsbury group. By the time he's taken to New York by Mrs Gurdin, Natalie Wood's Russian émigré mother, Maf is astonishingly erudite and dauntingly well-read. Mrs Gurdin sells him to Frank Sinatra, who wants him as a present for Marilyn Monroe.
Monroe took her dog with her most places she went, and O'Hagan's novel is a series of set pieces viewed from Maf's eye-level – dinner at the Copacabana club; in the Actors' Studio; on the therapist's couch; on the set of Something's Got to Give – embellished with cultural criticism and philosophical enquiry.
It's a novel about movies, which is to say it is about America and the stories it tells itself. It is roughly set in that period between JFK's election and his assassination, during which optimism trumped paranoia and the country was reaching for the Moon. It touches on politics (Trotsky is Maf's hero) and philosophy (Aristotle's Historia Animalium, obviously). It is littered with piercing critical insights, which Maf is prepared to defend by biting the ankles of more pompous literary critics. It ranges over a vast amount of art and literature, and is about the transformative power of both. And without taking itself too seriously, it's even about the human condition and the nature of existence.
But if such a gossipy, episodic and endlessly digressive book* might be said to have a central focus, it would be on that "strange and unhappy creature", Maf's owner, during the final two years of her life. "She had more natural comedy to her than anybody I would ever know," says Maf, and we get evidence of it in all the scenes in which Marilyn is in company. She's also intelligent, insightful and committed to a project of self- improvement. Unfortunately, she neither trusts nor values her opinions, and her failed marriage to Arthur Miller has intensified her feelings of intellectual insecurity. Being the archetypal dumb blonde for a living hardly helps, and by the novel's end, "Marilyn's panic about who she was had become who she was."
Maf is privy to Monroe's unguarded moments, and O'Hagan gives an intimate and affectionate account of her. It doesn't do anything so crass as to join in with speculation over her death or love life, but the unusual point of view allows us to see one of the 20th century's most mythologised icons afresh.
It's a part of the story's sadness, however, that she remains just beyond reach, "sliding towards abstraction", and Maf sums up plainly the anguish of anyone who ever felt powerless to save a person they love: "Sometimes it made me sad that she couldn't hear me."
* "A dog is bound to like footnotes," says Maf. "We spend our lives down here."Reuse content