Andrew O’Hagan was on the Best of Young British Novelists list in 2003 with ‘Gas, Boys, Gas’ – an excerpt from Personality. His new novel, The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe, is a portrait of Monroe during the last two years of her life, told from the point of view of a dog given to her by Frank Sinatra. Patrick Ryan spoke to O’Hagan about this unusual – and compelling – canine point of view and its very famous owner.


PR: Your narrator, Maf, observes Monroe explaining to John Kennedy that fame doesn’t conceal pain; it conceals self-knowledge. Where did that revelation come from in your research, and do you feel that it, in a way, sums her up as a person?

AOH: Several sources told me Kennedy had been impressed by Marilyn’s intelligence. Arthur Schlesinger said she was like a person underwater, so aware yet so distant. It occurred to me that Kennedy and Marilyn, who have lived so long in the public mind as fictions, might have a conversation about fame that brought out the character of each person. I just worked with it, seeing how the conversation could develop. In many ways, they were of course different. He, the son of a rich and powerful American family with a notorious daddy, and she, an orphan, someone always dreaming of the perfect family. I knew they had met at a party at Peter Lawford’s house in Santa Monica and I went there one day, just sitting on the sand and dreaming the scene up in my notebook. In finally writing it, I deferred to reality up to a point, but more so to the reality of the novel, which is what you must do if you write fiction.

We’re all talking about bedbugs in New York, but I think your book is the first place I’ve ever encountered them talking. In fact, every living creature in the world of the novel can talk to every other living creature (other than human beings) and can also absorb all the knowledge possessed in the heads of the people they’re around. As a result, even your bedbug characters – who have just a cameo – are smarter than I am. It’s only the humans who can’t speak interspecies or absorb the knowledge of others. Is this an assessment, on your part, of our species, or just an idea that ran with itself as you were writing?

I was excited by the idea that the creatures could see things about humans that the humans couldn’t see for themselves. I suppose that’s a staple of animal literature, from Aesop through Cervantes to Swift and Orwell. I wanted the novel to have a certain abundance of spirit, and that, I knew early on, would come via the animals’ particular ways of speaking that differentiated them. I wanted the beasts and four-legged creatures to be more special than the people, perhaps to throw the idea of ‘fame’ into relief. Beyond that, I do think it’s arrogant of human beings to take it for granted that only we have superior consciousness. I mean, it wasn’t a dog who wrote King Lear, but it wasn’t a dog who invented the atom bomb either. I loved the notion that the novel could make us laugh at these things and think about them.

Can you tell us a little about how you placed yourself into the point of view of a dog, and about any surprises that resulted from sticking to that point of view?

It wasn’t so much a surprise as a fulfilment of a notion I had: that taking on a dog’s voice would make me build a novel without prejudice. That’s to say, I had to give my narrator a consciousness from scratch and go to the very first principles of literary invention. That’s what I wanted with this book, a novel that would be about fiction-making itself. The setting might be different from what is usual for me, but fiction-making has been a central thing in my working life, and I wanted to focus on it exclusively. This was the vehicle for me because it chimed with my past and with many things about myself. I’m not from California and I’m not a movie star, but I’ve paid a lot of attention since childhood to that world, and I knew how to inhabit a sensibility that might bring it to life. Maf is an avatar, indeed, but not merely that. He taught me how to think non-nationally, and across species. In my view, this is fit work for a modern novelist. ‘There is nothing too small for such a small thing as man,’ wrote Samuel Johnson. And a dog may, once in a while, prove the perfect speaker. He certainly allowed me a season of freedom from obvious connections, and every writer, in my view, should have one or two such seasons over a career.

John Kennedy is given a fairly small amount of space in the novel. Is that because you decided not to write too much about him or because his role really was rather small in Monroe’s life?

Both are true. Kennedy was a small thing in Marilyn’s life. She was certainly excited by him – as everybody was – and she had probably one tryst with him. But despite all the nonsense and all the conspiracy theories, they were seldom on the same coast and hardly ever together. I wanted my novel to do some gentle debunking: the Kennedy connection was nothing more than it appeared, and the murder rubbish is just that. Believe me, or believe history, John Kennedy, if he wanted to murder people, had a long line of people he’d sooner have got rid of than a sweet and insecure actress on the West Coast. One of the jokes of Maf the Dog, as a book, is that it is the most reasonable of the books involving Marilyn. The premise may take a little getting used to, but Maf is saner than most of us.

Not to give away too much, but Maf gets to bite Lillian Hellman, tries to bite Edmund Wilson, and is threatened by Frank Sinatra. That’s a pretty impressive bio in and of itself. Is everything that happens in the book concerning famous people true, or did you take some creative license?

Nearly everything that constitutes a scene is true. Maf was in the company of all the people you mention. I can’t swear he sunk his teeth into Lillian Hellman – and if Hellman were alive she would certainly sue me – but the party is true and so are the guests. I know Maf very well, and he would have tried to take a chunk out of Edmund Wilson, just to set out his critical priorities. And Sinatra was the one who bought Maf. You couldn’t make it up. And I didn’t have to. That’s the great gag in a book so driven by fictional concerns: I didn’t have to make up very much at all.

There are probably more books written about Marilyn Monroe than any other celebrity (though there has certainly never been a book like this one). Were you setting out to portray her as she’s never been portrayed before, and even if not, do you think you have?

Someone who knew Marilyn told me this is the book she would have liked to read herself. That pleased me very much. I wanted to write a humane book about a central lightning rod of twentieth century culture, and at all times the book felt very native and very close to me. The fact that so many people had written about Marilyn made her the perfect figure for my book. There was so much more to know – to say, to imply, to gather, to imagine – about the world of early 60s New York and Hollywood, and sometimes, as a writer, you just know you have the wherewithall to do the job. With Marilyn, the human being, the woman, is too often obscured by the legend, and I wanted to write a thriving little tactical correction, a modern novel that shook the world like a snow-scene, just to watch the snow fall, and let the world seem new and orderly and peaceful.

 

Photograph by PalFest

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