Wednesday, December 06, 2006

An Alternative History

Ever wandered what the world would be like if JFK had survived the shooting in Dallas? What would Marilyn Monroe have done with her life if she hadn't died at 36 years of age? British journalist Mark Lawson imagines a world where they are both still alive in his 1995 novel, Idlewild.

Idlewild is a great, light read. It's Lawson's first novel, and sometimes it feels like that, but he is having such fun here and the plot is clever and funny so I'm ready to forgive any slight awkwardness. Lawson switches between various plot strands throughout the novel. There is the conspiracy theorists' conference (with many discussions about the attempted assassination of JFK and how it was all a plot to get him re-elected), the police who protect JFK (one of whom is Michael Dukakis- in this version of history he sticks with policing instead of getting into politics) and the lives of the aging JFK and Monroe, amongst other story lines. Lawson considers how JFK's reputation would have suffered, had he been the president during the Vietnam War. This JFK is one who showed early promise and then disgraced himself, forever associated with an unpopular and unsuccessful military campaign. He is a washed out, disappointed character who looks back on his life with regret.

Similarly Marilyn has aged, and has never quite lived up to the popularity of her youth. She has to contend with losing her looks after a career built on her famous beauty. Her attempts at a serious acting career- a film version of The Brothers Karamazov- have been derided and now she lives a furtive life, avoiding paparazzi and using the name Jean Norman.

There are some great touches to the novel- apparently Marilyn Monroe was interested in making a film of The Brothers Karamazov in real life- and Lawson has created a believable alternative history. He keeps the tone light and amusing, while also examining more serious ideas to do with time, fate and the impact of the individual on history.

I enjoyed Idlewild as a light read, but felt that some of the characters lacked depth. I wanted to learn more about the aging Kennedy particularly, but Lawson seems to have sacrificed some detail in order to contain a complex and sometimes gimmicky plot. Still, it's an interesting concept and the novel doesn't take itself too seriously- a good summer holiday read.

Incidentally, the title is taken from the original name of what is now JFK Airport.

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