Blonde (Joyce Carol Oates)

(published 2000)

We at TVC have never been charmed by the pasty, lumpy creature ‘Marilyn Monroe’; the bundle of affected moues, fleshy wiggles and whispers that the Frankenstein Studio reportedly stewed-up from some bits of lovelorn redneck Norma Jean and handfuls of sexpot glamour queen Marilyn.  Other than her almost-acting in “The Misfits” and her quite realistic impression of a starlet in “All About Eve“, her performances are tedious repetitions of wide-eyed Marilyn cooing and writhing her way through a sea of leering men.

So, while we have little faith in Marilyn’s ability ever to inspire, we have much in Joyce Carol Oates’ ability to inspire – sometimes. When she is good, she is very very good. And her ‘biographical novel’, Blonde, is very very good. Oates has said that her interest was in how pretty, illegitimate Norma Jean Baker became the mega-star Marilyn Monroe, dead at 36. How did a poverty-line teenage wife morph into the global sensation who, sans shame or underwear, breathed ‘Happy Birthday’ to her lover, the President, in an obscene nude dress? But in Blonde, Norma Jean herself never ‘becomes’ ,’morphs’ or is ‘made into’ into the ghastly, livid construct MARILYN MONROE (the name in caps by the end of the novel). MARILYN MONROE is a skin that she puts on, requiring years of work, hours of makeup, hair-dressing, costuming, cosseting, dieting, drugs and true acting.

Oates’ sympathetic insight softens her presentation of the cruel ambition which this woman must have used against others. Some may feel that she glosses-over the psychic damage caused by the abuse which the foster child and studio bit player suffered; but Oates’ Norma Jean is not defined by either of these aspects of her personality. Her rise to the spotlight is both a hard-won surprise and expected by her at the same time.

Events of Monroe’s real life are followed in broad strokes. The nameless character standing in for joltin’ Joe DiMaggio is a peasant boor. The Arthur Miller character is treated more kindly – she dumped him. Don’t read this book if you dislike reading unkind words about JFK. Monroe’s famous tardiness and tantrums are a logical consequence of her circumstances, although we can understand why actors such as Tony Curtis loathed her.

Blonde races at the speed of the deadly courier in the first pages. Its’s real page-turner, but it is not pulp. Its few faults are the annoying use of italics and some unlikely inventions – a series of letters, a long-term three-way relationship, but this is fiction after all. The final scene, insidious and lovely, is another invention – but entirely credible.

The early chapters are the less successful passages – unhappy childhoods are all alike (pace Tolstoy – Ed.) – but persist – Norma Jean did. Bravo.


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