ANDREW O'Hagan's new novel, quite unlike his earlier ones, is a piece of outrageous self-indulgence, in danger of being twee, for the narrator is a dog, a fluffy little white Maltese terrier that Frank Sinatra gave to Marilyn Monroe. Maf was bred in Scotland by an aristocratic Trotskyist, from whom he has imbibed his political opinions, "a complex man with a love of whisky and a passion for the early European novel".
Maf himself is conscious of being one of the aristocrats of the canine world: "a great relative of mine was famous as the boon companion of Mary Queen of Scots; another one gained the ravenous affections of Marie Antoinette". Well, if you say so.
He is taken to America, after a short stay in the Bloomsbury house of Charleston, by the Russian mother of Natalie Wood – James Dean's girlfriend in Rebel Without a Cause – who has been commissioned by the foul-mouthed Sinatra to find a dog for his friend Marilyn. Her marriage to Arthur Miller is over and Maf becomes, by his account, Marilyn's best friend and confidant for the last two years of her life.
Maf is a well-educated dog, versed in literature and history, able to discuss philosophy and literary criticism, as indeed are many of his canine friends. He knows a lot too about the histories of other famous dogs, like Sigmund Freud's chow, and he admires the dog-stars of Hollywood, notably Lassie (played usually by a male dog), and thinks well also of Snoopy. He has a good opinion of himself, but despite his intelligence and aristocratic lineage is not (I think) a snob, perhaps on account of his reverence for Trotsky (though Trotsky himself was an intellectual snob, a failing which led him to underestimate Stalin and was the cause of his downfall).
Marilyn takes Maf everywhere. They go to nightclubs and Lee Strasberg's Actors' Studio in New York, where they rehearse a Eugene O'Neill play, discuss Dostoevsky (Marilyn has been reading The Brothers Karamazov for months) and talk about the importance of comedy. ("A hundred thousand people were placed in the Gulag for telling jokes," Mrs Strasberg says.) Maf attends her when she calls on the novelist Carson McCullers and hears her dismiss Truman Capote as "jest a redneck pansy impressed by the smart folk" and a writer who stole from everyone he read.
He goes to a ghastly literary party, nips that ghastly woman and appalling liar Lillian Hellman in the ankle (good) and Edmund Wilson's finger (not so good, or at least not so thoroughly deserved). Back in Hollywood he is present when Jack Kennedy comes to call and hears the story of how the Kennedy brothers took the risk of getting Martin Luther King out of jail during JFK's presidential campaign. This is all good fooling, with a fair quota of intellectual crackle. O'Hagan is enjoying himself no end. Readers who can keep abreast of the references and allusions will share the author's enjoyment.
But what, you will want to know, does the novel tell us about Marilyn that we didn't know before? What light does it shed on her struggle to realise who she was and to come to terms with her extraordinary celebrity? Does it solve the mystery of her death, and were the Kennedys involved? Here the answers are sadly disappointing.
Maf's Marilyn is the sweet lost girl we already know. His loving portrait of her is entirely conventional and doesn't offer a single surprise. And as for her death, we stop short. Maf last sees her on television with the president in the audience and she appears "beyond reach at the centre of her ghostly aura, the night crowding round her as she sang 'Happy Birthday'. My fated companion looked as if nothing real had ever touched her …" The reader, hoping for elucidation of mysteries, may feel cheated. Yet, artistically, O'Hagan has made the right decision, leaving Marilyn there and letting Maf retire to her bed where the odour of Chanel No 5 still lingers.
Perhaps the book is really about America, about its ability to take in all and sundry from all over the world and make them into Americans, whatever their origins. It is both a love letter to the USA and a criticism of it. As Marilyn's devoted young fan Charlie, an editor in a publishing house, tells her: "To understand the pure good of America you have to have been a communist in your youth. You have to have felt, at least once, that after a certain point money-making is aggression. It murders people."
"That's the way Arthur talks in his plays," she replies. "But I don't know about real life. He always seemed pretty interested in money to me." Quite so.
For those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they will like a lot.