Having read Alexander Rigby’s first novel, The Second Chances of Priam Wood, not long after its release in 2013, I picked up What Happened to Marilyn while it was still on preorder, keen to see how Rigby’s work is progressing. Like myself, he represents a relatively rare breed: the independently published literary author, dealing with serious themes outside of the conventions of a defined genre.
Like Second Chances, this latest book of Rigby’s deals with a character given another shot at living when it ought to be game over, yet flips the emphasis almost a hundred and eighty degrees. Second Chances was structurally experimental, showing its hero living each of seven days twice, once disastrously and the next with the benefit of greater wisdom and perspective. What Happened is more conventional, telling a single story straight through from beginning to end. Second Chances‘ innovation was in itself one of the novel’s greatest delights; here we get to see Rigby focus and pull the threads of his story together more tightly.
Where Second Chances was driven by structure, What Happened hinges on setting and character. The central premise: what if a genius from the future invented time travel and then used it to pluck Marilyn Monroe from 1960s California just hours before her death? Light science fantasy elements are used to good effect, paralleling the slight magical realism of Rigby’s earlier work: here we have flying cars, human clones, and a time machine powered by dreams that recalls the DeLorean of Back to the Future.
While inventor Jeremiah Gold is the protagonist, Marilyn Monroe herself plays a large part, and Rigby shows close familiarity with her work and the details of her life. I found myself inspired to research Monroe out of curiosity, but it’s not necessary to enjoy the work, as the key details are explained and the Marilyn of What Happened becomes an independent character after her own death.
There are numerous pleasures here. One of the highlights for me was watching Jeremiah play his part: as Marilyn’s kidnapper, he is well-intentioned, but a kidnapper nonetheless, and he swings between sympathetic and creepy as he struggles to contain his worst tendencies. The other is speculating over how it is that while Jeremiah succeeds in rescuing Marilyn, history in the 2060s continues to show that she died in exactly the same manner we are familiar with. Rigby teases us with numerous possibilities, but it is difficult to guess the correct explanation until the novel’s end finally reveals it. Much the same goes for the romantic subplots, which did not resolve as I might have expected.
Rigby professes to be taking some time off before working on another novel, and I’ll be sorry not to have another title from him next year in which to chart the further development of his talent. If you’re looking for independent literature, here it is. Now I’m on the hunt for more.