The Washington Post, December 6, 2010
Andrew O'Hagan's jeu d'esprit washes toward us on a transatlantic wave of praise. It is brilliant, says Roddy Doyle, and moving and very funny. Edna O'Brien predicts it will become a classic. Colm Toibin loves it, too. What does it say about me, I wonder, that I found it a grinding, irksome bore? In my defense, I can only argue that comic novels, by their very nature, provoke a binary response in readers: Something is funny or it isn't, and nothing can persuade us otherwise. I love pretty much everything Dawn Powell or Saki ever wrote, but I still can't make it through "A Confederacy of Dunces" (God knows I've tried) or "Molloy" or Thomas Pynchon's recent picaresques. And I'm afraid I resented every minute I had to spend with "The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe."
Starting with that broadly winking title. The eponymous Maf is our narrator, deeply garrulous and, according to his papers, a Scottish-born Maltese, "the sort of dog who is set for foreign adventures and ordained to tell the story." This particular story takes him to America in the early '60s, where, through a complicated chain of ownership, he is lateraled from Frank Sinatra to America's favorite sex symbol, who has just split up with America's most revered playwright.
Nursing herself back to mental health, Marilyn camps out in an Upper East Side Manhattan apartment and spends her days crawling through long Russian novels, rehearsing scenes from "Anna Christie" at the Actors Studio, visiting her shrink and trying, in some vague but real way, to determine who she is, apart from the world's desires.
She finds a spiritual ally in her lapdog, Maf, who is entranced by her beauty and kindness and Chanel No. 5 scent. "I think," writes Maf, "we shared a feeling for the tribulations of the period, an instinct for killing the distance between the high and the low, something that would come in time to explain the depth of our friendship. If she brought out the actor in me then it might be said that I brought out the philosopher in her. The Marilyn I knew was smelly and fun and an artist to the very end of her fingertips."
Dog and owner stroll through Central Park, take the ferry to Staten Island, hang out at the Copa, drop in on Leo Castelli's art gallery and hobnob with lit-crit dragons at Alfred Kazin's apartment. But Marilyn grows "listless with thoughts, regrets"and, after spiraling into depression, flees with Maf back to California, where even the promise of a new house and a new starring role can't keep her from embracing drink and pills and the long "slide towards abstraction."
The book climaxes not with Marilyn's death but with her singing "Happy Birthday" to President Kennedy—the moment, in short, when Marilyn was swallowed by her own caricature. Only to become, in the hands of European intellectuals, a new sort of caricature: the emblem (and victim) of Cold War America's Eros-Thanatos contradictions. Yes, they love Dead Marilyn across the pond, and no one loves her more than emigre Maf, who, having somehow absorbed the full continuum of Western culture, devoutly wishes to situate his former mistress within it.
He's the kind of pedantic pooch who can't even sit for a spell in Central Park without conjuring up visions of the Ice Age and dinosaurs and the Dutch settlers. The kind who, even when he's giving you the inside poop on his illustrious owners, has to water it with a stream of pensees: "Trotsky said there is no place for self-satisfaction at the point of revolution. . . . Those of us who tell stories are committed slaves to the past's dominion, to the fresh echo of the little bell which announced M. Swann's arrival. . . . It was America, dear, golden, childish America, that joined the narrative of personal ambition to the myth of a common consciousness, making a hymn, oh yes, to the future, the spirit, and the rolling land." On and on it goes, and if you're anything like me, you'll be reaching for the nearest muzzle or, failing that, a rolled-up newspaper.
I won't argue that O'Hagan is ungifted. He buffs phrase after phrase to a Turtle Wax sheen: Arthur Miller's "inky old blameless honour," John Kennedy's "dictatorship of good intentions." He sketches a portrait of Marilyn that is largely persuasive and grants her neither too much nor too little intellectual weight. And while his ear for American dialect is erratic, he can, if he wishes, create tableaux of cut-glass perfection: a wacky cocktail hour at the home of Natalie Wood's Russian parents; a moment of sisterly communion between Marilyn and Shelley Winters. The problem is that every time you find yourself inching toward enjoyment, that damned dog rushes in with his yappy lectures and his scrolls of cultural signifiers and his "Is the possibility of Being contingent on an acceptance of Mortality?" and his "I wonder if the Russian dogs care for Plutarch as much as I do,"and any prospect of joy flies out the door.
To his credit, O'Hagan has sidestepped whimsy, but he has wholeheartedly embraced pretentiousness, and if that's not a laugh killer, I don't know what is. Among the many, many, many literary allusions dropped by Maf over the course of this slender novel is Virginia Woolf's putdown of "Ulysses": "the work of a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples." I think you can see a similar impulse at play in O'Hagan, who makes such an exhausting case for his own brilliance that he comes off like the cleverest boy in fifth form. All I wanted to do at book's end was find a real dog and rub it behind its ears.