If you're going to add to the heaps of books about Marilyn Monroe, that luscious object of endless ogling and fascination, you'd better have a fresh angle. Scottish writer Andrew O'Hagan, the author of two Booker Prize contenders, Our Fathers (1999) and Be Near Me (2006), sure does. His clever fourth novel, The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe, is narrated from the perspective of the (real-life) white Maltese given to Monroe by Frank Sinatra in 1960, shortly after she separated from Arthur Miller and just two years before she died of an overdose of sleeping pills at age 36.
Maf, short for Mafia Honey, is of course not your ordinary dog, and his dazzling but occasionally wearying "memoir" is a wry twist on a shaggy dog story. Marilyn's "fated companion," as he calls himself, cites Plato, Plutarch, Trotsky and Locke in sometimes pretentious and convoluted but generally hilarious disquisitions on celebrity, identity, art, literature, politics and a survey of canines in literature, from Cervantes to Chekhov. He explains that dogs absorb everything known to their owners, plus "the thoughts of those we meet." And, oh, the people Maf meets!
O'Hagan's novel features more famous characters (all safely dead) than a Tom Stoppard play. The tale of the Scottish-born self-proclaimed "aristocrat of the canine world" takes him from the English country house of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant to California, where Natalie Wood's Russian emigre mother sells him to Sinatra, who transports him to newly single Monroe's swank Sutton Place apartment, with its "powerful feeling of departed resentment."
In short order, Maf becomes Marilyn's best friend and protector, accompanying her to her hairdresser, her undermining analyst and parties, including an evening at Peter Lawford's, where she has an intense conversation — and, according to Maf, nothing more — with President Kennedy about the wages of fame. An insightful, unusually sympathetic portrait of the insecure star emerges: "It was as if the world had bleached her with attention." Marilyn, Maf notes, "wanted to learn to take herself seriously, to value her experience. And yet she was hitched to the person she had always been: the girl who was sweet and available, who now took pills and drank."
O'Hagan delivers some great lines, including Maf's comment on Monroe's heavy Russian reading: "I wished I could tell her to leave all that to the mutts: anybody can read a book, but Marilyn could make people dream." When Marilyn recalls a teacher who said she could do anything she put her mind to, she adds ruefully, "But I put my mind into tight sweaters instead."
Not all the philosophical ruminations work, but a literary catfight at a book party at Alfred Kazin's apartment is satire with real bite. "Two bores," Lillian Hellman and Edmund Wilson, incite an irritated Maf to sink his teeth into them, causing Diana Trilling to laud his "most exquisite critical taste." During a debate about whether literature's role is narcotic or escapist, Irving Howe comments, "Show me a good novel and I will show you a centre of vibrancy. ... Where are today's comic novels?"
Well, look no further. Describing George Cukor — the director of Monroe's last, unfinished film, Something's Got to Give — O'Hagan cites his talent for "a great depth of lightness." This wonderful phrase also applies to Maf the Dog.