"The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and of his friend Marilyn Monroe" by Andrew O'Hagan is a book that will probably sell mostly for its title. Consequently, I suspect, many of those who buy it (and regardless of whether they have sampled its opening pages) will be sorely disappointed with it. The book is based on a number of clever (although far from original) conceits, the principal of which is that dogs (as well as other animals) are sensitive to the thoughts and dreams of humans (most especially for dogs, of their owners) and thus, over time, accumulate a deep understanding of and love for human thinking, which imbues them with a profound propensity for endless philosophising. Sadly, all attempts to vocalise their endless musings are invariably perceived as nothing more than barks, yaps and other meaningless or annoying noises, making the trait more frustrating than useful.
In choosing as his protagonist not only a dog from real life but also one that was known to be the almost constant companion of a famous individual who is nowadays regarded as herself occupying something of a shadowy world of semi-make believe, frustrated in her attempts to find or make her true self known to others -- as well as now heavily shrouded in mystique, notoriety and offering a perfect candidate for voyeurism -- O'Hagan sets up an endless series of potential directions for his novel. And there, I think, is the rub; while providing countless possible themes and in a setting laced with the poignancy, scandal and intrigue, most readers are likely to be disappointed with the direction that the author actually chooses to take. In the end, the period and the setting are nothing more than backdrop in this book and while there are many passing snipes at the petty foibles of the rich and the famous and the powerful, ultimately the book is nothing more than a single, over-extended gag about the nature of dogs (and also, by extension, their owners).
Readers interested in the characters and events of the times portrayed in this book are likely to be frustrated at the long parade of the minutiae of events and random conversations, seemingly at the expense of any coherent presentation of context or the bigger picture -- much indeed as a dog taken for a walk will happily spend its time sniffing around in the leaves without ever knowing (or caring) where it actually is or might have been. Conversely, those without any knowledge of the relationships between Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monrow, the Kennedy clan -- to say nothing of the great panoply of Hollywood characters of the mid 1960s -- will find the continual digressions into the details of their gatherings confusing, distracting and boring in the extreme.
Andrew O'Hagan has a lovely way with words and many passages in this book are very beautiful indeed. At times is also very clever and witty, and the book is full of sharp observations about the nature of the world, of people and, most especially, of dogs. Sadly though, there are times -- altogether too many times -- when it is just plain tedious and often one can't help thinking: there's a good dog but come along now!