This week’s review

Since the Scotsman website has omitted the first sentence of the review, I’ll post the whole piece directly – on Andrew O’Hagan’s carnivalesque “Life And Opinions Of Maf The Dog And Of His Friend Marilyn Monroe”. Personally, I thought James Lever’s “Me Cheeta” – longlisted for the Booker last year – was a more complex novel than people gave it credit for (think of it as Lolita with a monkey playing Humbert Humbert). O’Hagan’s novel is in the same genre, with the essayistic tone you’d expect from the author of The Atlantic Ocean. In other literary news: who’d have thought it, but the Sunday Post of all publications had a story about books as their page one lead. Jings, crivvens and help ma boab. Odd that in a story about Scottish publishing, a certain body has not commented as yet… Anyway, here’s Marilyn:

Which page was she on? I reckon it must be close to the end of Molly Bloom's soliloquy...

A few years ago at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Booker short-listed writer Andrew O’Hagan participated in a panel discussion, and gave a sterling defence of the novel as an intricate machine for generating moral meaning. His own works to date – Our Fathers, Personality and Be Near Me – clearly fit into that tradition. Naturalist in form, melancholic in tone, elegantly understated in manner, each novel was structured around a series of moral cruxes: idealism versus actuality, desire versus duty, perfection versus empathy. They were novels that set “I should” against “I wish” and showed that neither came without a cost. It’s therefore staggering, joyous and somewhat unnerving that his new book, in a classic critic-confounding way, should be anarchic, over-the-top, irreverent and gleeful. There is an elegiac undertow, but one that only serves to make the dazzle and delight all the more piquant.
 
O’Hagan had learnt one of the cardinal rules of the novel: if you’re going to break a rule, you might as well shatter it. So his new novel is narrated by a dog. Not just any dog, but Marilyn Monroe’s Maltese terrier Maf (short for Mafia), who was given to her by Frank Sinatra, who bought him from Natalie Wood’s mother, who acquired him from Virginia Woolf’s sister, and who was born in the Highlands and spent his earliest years imbibing Trotskyist politics and the novels of Henry Fielding. And dogs, of course, are almost telepathically linked with the history of the universe through canine eyes, from Plutarch to Freud via Descartes; they hate cats because of their pretentions to verse; and have an insatiable penchant for digression.  Maf also disdains the human schizophrenia between fantasy and reality.
 
O’Hagan appears to have re-set his internal novelistic barometer, moving away from Flaubert and James and back to Cervantes and Sterne. He signals this himself, since Maf knows, as Maf would know, that one of Cervantes’s Exemplary Fables was narrated by dogs. It’s a novel with footnotes, lists, break-out songs, sudden poetry, shameless name dropping and an essayist’s eclectic range: O’Hagan, via Maf, gives a tour of animals in literature that others might have used for a doctoral thesis.
 
Shattering a rule is not enough, though, unless one proposes an alternative aesthetic. O’Hagan makes Maf an incarnation of the picaresque. He is a wry chancer, a boundless optimist, a laughing philosopher. In the course of the novel he – of course – bumps into Cantinflas and J F Kennedy, Roddy McDowall and Ella Fitzgerald. He also strays into conversations by cultural critics such as Susan Sontag and Lionel Trilling, as well as attending Marilyn at acting classes and art galleries. These encounters allow O’Hagan to let Maf off his leash as it were, and eavesdrop on the kind of novel we are reading.
 
There’s a telling exchange about the paintings of Roy Lichtenstein where the dealer enthuses “Laughter and colour are the only answers to modern life… Cartoon objects. Cartoon characters. Cartoon meanings. Lightness is the new profundity… Wow is the new Why”. Later on Maf castigates Lee Strasberg’s “method acting” school with the yap “If it’s not bleeding from the eyes and tripping downstage carrying a giant egg-timer you think it must be frivolous”. During the serious literary party, where Maf disgraces himself by biting notables with dumb ideas, we get to overhear Susan Sontag formulating her idea of camp, with Maf as the puppish, inspirational Puck.
 
And it’s Sontag’s idea of Camp that anchors this sad-clever, arch-naive novel. As she wrote, “Camp proposes a comic vision of the world. But not a bitter or polemical comedy. If tragedy is an experience of hyperinvolvement, comedy is an experience of underinvolvement, of detachment”. Maf, as literal and metaphoric underdog, is underinvolvement par excellence. For all his knowledge of the past – including, but not confined to, the role of Crab in Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, the vision of Mexico as utopia, the novels of Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer – Maf has no knowledge of the future. The reader knows that Monroe will never act in a serious version of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, but Maf persists with his all-or-nothing support of her unachievable ideals.  Edwin Morgan, in his poem “The Death of Marilyn Monroe”, asked “Will the slow white hearse of the child of America follow you around?” O’Hagan seems to expand on that line, riffing a whole Greyfriar’s Bobby to that cortege.
 
If I said this novel was “profoundly superficial”, I would not want that to be a criticism. It has the strenuous delicacy of a pond-skater standing on water, or a glass of champagne topped up to the rim. That very precision gives the novel its persistent shadow of disappointment: in a serious way, it’s the first novel of the Obama age, full of potential and hope and haunted by grief and regret. On the second page, Maf describes his love of liver – “it’s a zizz and a yarm and a rumph and a treat” – which would perfectly apply to the novel if he added a dash of bitters and a smear of tears. O’Hagan might, on the strength of this, be the person to break the Booker’s fear of funny. 
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