Maf the dog and Archy the cockroach

I met Manny Ramirez’s chef once. (That’s a famous Red Sox outfielder. I was a huge Red Sox fan while writing Melly Mockingbird, and I sort of miss it.) I told this amiable man how fascinated I am by celebrities. “Oh, they’re nothing special,” the chef said. “Not so interesting when you get to know them.”

I remember feeling very embarrassed. I hadn’t meant that I thought celebrities were bound to be interesting people, just that I was (and am) endlessly interested in how people deal with the pressures of celebrity. But a “serious” novelist—especially one without the credential of publication—who’s mesmerized by pop culture is always dancing along that knife-edge of perceived literary value. I’ve written about fame in three of my last four books. There’s Mara, who was inspired by the articles about Pamela Anderson that I used to read in French gossip magazines while working at Borders; Jumper, who has the misfortune to be both a rock star and a schizophrenic, and his idol Melly, who couldn’t care less about her reputation; and even Lore and Sterling are famous in some circles.

So I’ve always admired Scottish novelist Andrew O’Hagan for taking on “the modern drama of celebrity” in Personality. Normally I would avoid a book with the words “Marilyn Monroe” in the title, but because it was O’Hagan’s I leapt at the chance to buy The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe. (There’s a lot of Marilyn in Mara, too, though I wasn’t conscious of that while I was writing her.) And how did O’Hagan deal with the challenge of his ostensibly “unserious” subject matter? By going as radically intellectual as a small white dog named Mafia Honey can go, and in the process soaring far over my head. But I did enjoy the book’s extraordinary sentences. Here are a few:

Most dogs are socialists, but the schnauzer said the mongrel was a workerist kind of dog with a chip on his shoulder, a New Masses throwback, one of those pups who go on about the vanguard of the proletariat.

I love that Maf makes a distinction between socialist dogs and workerist dogs, though I haven’t the least idea what he’s talking about.

I walked over and lay on a bare mattress in a room across the hallway. There were bedbugs. I saw them and immediately assumed they were little Karamazovs. I don’t know whether it was the general environment, or the condition of the people they’d been close to, but the bedbugs had a perfectly Russian attitude, seeming to doubt the reliability of everything. “We admit it is our time,” said one of the bugs in a mournful way. “Russian values, if we may speak of anything so nebulous and bourgeois as values, are understood, in America as elsewhere, to be a central feature in what we might call the great duality and contradiction of the age.”

This one reminded me irresistably of Don Marquis’s immortal Archy. Archy is a free-verse poet who has been reincarnated as a cockroach in a newspaper office, where he composes poignant messages on Marquis’s own typewriter by hitting one key at a time with his head. Due to the limitations of this method, he can’t produce capital letters or punctuation (if you don’t understand this, you’re under forty). The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitabel is one of my favoritest books ever. Enjoy the following wisdom from Archy.

now look at it

the human race never would
take my advice
and now just look at it
planning more wars which mean
more debts more trouble and still more wars
well if it wants to commit suicide
why should a little insect such as i
worry about it
a suicide is a person who has
considered his own case and decided
that he is worthless and who acts
as his own judge jury and executioner
and he probably knows better
than anyone else whether there is justice
in the verdict
i am sorry to see the human race go
for it was in some respects almost as interesting
as several species of insects
but if it wants to die off
i shall not worry about it
i shall merely conclude it knows what it wants
                       archy the cockroach

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