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What the dog saw

With sly, deft touch, an opinionated pet with taste for philosophy and literary name-dropping offers a clear-eyed peek at Marilyn Monroe and her times

(Chris Gash)
By Richard Eder
Globe Correspondent / December 19, 2010

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Story or myth, Marilyn Monroe has resurfaced in so many incarnations — falling star, fragile goddess, golden sacrifice — that to launch another must guarantee foundering under a cargo of kitsch. Yet Andrew O’Hagan, a Scots-born novelist, has floated up his version with brainy elegance and set it skimming off on an oddly original course.

His Monroe is told by her dog, Maf. We immediately think of Virginia Woolf’s “Flush”; and O’Hagan uses Maf somewhat as Woolf used Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog: to depict not just his owner but the society she moved among. The truer comparison is to Don Marquis’s cartoon character Archy, the disillusioned and philosophic cockroach in raffish discourse with Mehitabel, the glamor-queen cat.

Maf, a present from Frank Sinatra, tells of Marilyn in her declining days, but O’Hagan has made him, not her, the center of his story. He is an ebullient thinker, given to large ideas, declaring himself an existentialist — “We are what we imagine we are; reality itself is the supreme fiction” — and flashily well-read; his literary name-dropping boasts the likes of Mann, Adorno, and Plato. He is touchy, and proud of his lineage: Maltese terriers, he tells us, go back to Roman days. He converses with birds, bugs, mice, and other dogs; cats too, though he resents their tendency to talk in poetry. He insists on taking full part in human conversations; unfortunately, all they hear is barking. It is frustrating; he appreciates people — “for a dog, ownership sets us free” — but nurtures a decided class resentment.

By having Marilyn’s story told by Maf, O’Hagan has utterly avoided the romantic sentimentality of the myth. Maf loves her and their snuggling companionship, but she is only an element in his world of doggy preoccupations, of doggy philosophy, of doggy conversations; for example, with a fly in Marilyn’s soup. Pompously, Maf scolds it for giving up its life for a transitory creamy pleasure: “Wrong again, buster,” the drowning fly retorts. “Fact is, I‘ve had my 30 days.”

His voice, affectionate but cool, gives a stoic account that manages to be more moving than any quantity of anthropocentric tragedy-churning. “Humans feel such compassion for themselves,” he remarks. And the coolness keeps mint-fresh his summing up of his mistress. “Marilyn was a strange and unhappy creature, but at the same time she had more natural comedy to her than anybody I would ever know. More comedy and more art.”

Maf’s detached, quirky account, regretting her anguish but in no way appropriating it, provides all kinds of moments and insights. There is the violence of Sinatra; kind to her at first and later, infuriated by the distance kept by President Kennedy, for whose campaign he had rounded up Hollywood, turning abusively on her. When Maf comes to Marilyn she is still depressed over the end of her marriage to Arthur Miller, but glad to be free of him “and his inky old blameless honor.” He tells of her need to be regarded as intelligent, of the heavyweight books she kept with her, of her friendship with the acid-tongued Carson McCullers and Lee Strasberg, her mentor at his Actors Studio. “She liked their thoughts the way people liked her face.”

The book’s most extravagantly comic passage is Maf’s dog’s-eye account of a literary gathering at Alfred Kazin’s with, among others, Dwight McDonald, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Frank O’Hara, and the dandified essayist Lionel Trilling (“holding his pipe at an angle to his thoughts”). Maf’s narration turns into a multivoiced oratorio-like sequence, rather like the Nighttown section of “Ulysses,’’ with Marilyn suspended dreamlike in its midst. The dog brings it down to earth; when Lillian Hellman denounces Trotsky as a traitor, Maf, a self-described Trotskyite, bites her ankle. She threatens lawsuits.

There are New York outings, peaceful times in the park, pleasures tinged with a foreboding that Maf does not voice but we do. There is Marilyn’s reverence at meetings with Lillian Gish and other grand old theater figures. They calmed her; “she liked to feel survival was a trick women could pull off, in spite of everything.” Her vulnerability is suggested in the lightest of terms. Two butterflies flutter over her on one outing; they speak “in the manner of Nabokov.” As they fly off they tell Maf: “Take care of her, mon brave.”

We are told of her return to Hollywood from New York in the early 1960s, the breakdowns that got her fired from George Cukor’s abortive “Something’s Got to Give,” a flirtation with Kennedy that led her to sing “Happy Birthday’’ to him at Madison Square Garden and perhaps hope for something more. Maf watches on television.

A few months later she is dead of an overdose, whether by accident, suicide or even, as rumored, murder. Maf does not go into any of this; elegy is barely hinted at, and scandal not at all; he leaves it to a cat to speak a poem. This touching lightly grips harder than any lamentation. Death is a sunset; it darkens dogs, butterflies, people; and O’Hagan’s elegant withholding wins for Marilyn a melancholy wisdom that seems to lift the imprisoning Midas touch of legend and replace it with the dignity of life — a dog’s, say, or a person’s.

Richard Eder, who writes reviews for numerous publications, can be reached at richardgeder@gmail.com.

THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF MAF THE DOG AND OF HIS FRIEND MARILYN MONROE
By Andrew O’Hagan
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 277 pp. $24