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Review of "Blonde" by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco Press, $27.50, Hardcover, 738 pp.)

Note: a version of this book review appeared in the Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review on April 9, 2002.     

When does the freedom of fiction become license? 

     That question occurs on reading Joyce Carol Oates's novelization of Marilyn Monroe's life, a question particularly relevant since, in a dumbfounding statement ("On the Composition of `Blonde'") sent with the book, the author claims permissive authority over her subject:  "... the sole voice of BLONDE is Norma Jeane's, as if she's speaking to us, at last, out of her body and out of time....  I felt her fingers encircling my wrist....  I came to feel that Norma Jeane had no one but me to tell her story from the inside.  How it felt, how it feels, to have been her ... to be her...."

     Oates's musings would not be out of place in a coven of Hollywood channelers, nor in the mind of a Method-y actress auditioning for a role she won't get.  Coming from a reputable author, they require scrutiny.

     Oates has taken on a formidable subject, Norma Jeane, who became Marilyn Monroe.           

     Indeed, the legend of Marilyn Monroe may eventually overtake that of Helen of Troy.  Her image reigns over all others on the outside wall of the Chinese Theater.  Her visage enthralls on street murals.  Psychics proclaim visitations from their gorgeous Madonna.  Accounts of 20th Century highlights acknowledge her commanding presence, right along with Einstein's.  A single name evokes her.  Marilyn!

     While, according to Homer's "Iliad," Helen's face launched a thousand ships, Marilyn has launched a thousand books.  She is a Rorschach test for authors.  In non-fiction accounts, Truman Capote discovered a playmate; Norman Mailer, a dead mistress;  Gloria Steinem, an embarrassment for many women before tragedy transformed her.  (This reviewer mythologized a possible daughter of hers and Robert Kennedy's.) 

     Did she suspect she would inspire such staggering attention?  Biographical evidence indicates otherwise.  She had been discarded by two most powerful men, John and Robert Kennedy.  (But history will link them to her forever.)  She feared she had inherited her mother's insanity, once committing herself to a psychiatric ward, unable to get herself out.  Believing her beauty gone (though final photographs reveal greater beauty), addicted to prescription drugs, her career in disarray, she died despondent at age 36 in 1962.

     Her real last name is in ambiguity--Baker or Mortensen?--her father unknown.  She revised important details of her life (contending her mother was dead although she was in an institution).  When she was discovered dead in her bedroom in the only house she ever owned, mystery swirled around her.  Was she murdered?  Did she commit suicide?  Did she surrender to an accidental overdose?  She died virtually insolvent, but, in harsh paradox, her estate, controlled by a woman she never knew--the second wife of Lee Strasberg, a man Marilyn purportedly intended to remove as heir--is worth millions; even in death, her features are owned, jealously guarded, expensively rented. 

     She is now lovingly celebrated--and grossly used.  The fact that she was a real woman--with a life of her own, with feelings of her own--is increasingly forgotten, undermined, or ignored.  The result is the almost-daily exploitation, the reckless looting, of her life and death.  In his biography, "Goddess:  The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe," Anthony Summers included a brutal photograph of her after autopsy.  At Christie's, everything she touched went to the highest bidder.  The famous dress she wore when she sang, "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" was sold for $1,267,500.  An advertisement for unofficial stamps commemorating that auction exhorted:  "Own a piece of Marilyn!"

     And now along comes Oates claiming to "be" Norma Jeane.  In order to deal, first, with her novel as a novel, one must try to keep in abeyance her eerie claim of ghostly intervention.

     Oates's characterization of Norma Jeane's mother as a wounded monster is plausible.  Believing herself threatened by fire rimming the City, Gladys flees in a ragged car with Norma Jeane, and then shifts, toward the fire.  "I want to see Hell up close.  A preview," she says.

     Oates effectively converts the burial of MGM mogul Irving Thalberg into a funeral of contrasts:  Behind barricades, a throng waits: "... for film stars and other celebrities to arrive in a succession of chauffeur-driven limousines, enter the temple, and depart again after a length of ninety minutes, during which time the murmurous crowd ... appeared disoriented, as if they'd suffered a great loss without knowing what it was." 

     A good scene depicts surfers saving Marilyn from a possibly suicidal drowning, then quietly recognizing her.  Oates's sharp eye for grotesqueness creates Boscheian surrealism throughout.  Here, fans are: "... creatures of the under-earth.  Hunchbacked gnomes & beggar maids & homeless females with mad eyes & straw hair.  Those among us mysteriously wounded by life...." 

     Matters go quickly awry.  In turning Los Angeles into a hellish city as a backdrop for her dour narrative, Oates shoves grotesqueness into hysterical parody.  She conjures an annihilation of children, "... nowhere in greater numbers than in southern California ... their little corpses, often charred beyond recognition, were hastily swept off Los Angeles streets by sanitation workers, collected in dump trucks to be buried in unmarked mass graves.  Not a word to the press or radio!  No one must know."  Except Oates.

     Soon, "Death" bicycles through "the warm radioactive air of southern California where Death had been born."  Death born in Southern California!

     Chapter titles like "The Lost One," "The Vision," and references to the "Fair Princess," the "Dark Prince" augur imposed allegory.  Foggy loftiness sweeps into the language in italics:  "For what is time but others' expectations of us?"  That vasty tone is further elevated by the recurrence of the archaic conjunction "for," several on virtually every page, at times even in dialogue, and hundreds of Biblical "And's."  "For there is no meaning to life apart from the movie story.  And there is no movie story apart from the darkened movie theater.")

     Allegory drains life from Oates's characters; and although at its best the agitated prose assumes urgency, her familiar literary stunts (exclamatory running sentences, racing ampersands, gasping blank spaces) serve only to interrupt an intrinsically powerful story.

     Oates emphasizes:  "Improvising, you don't know where you're headed.  But sometimes it's good."  Often, it isn't.  As the novel stretches, the impression grows that it is an unusually rushed improvisation by this admirably prolific author.

     How else to account for pages of loose writing resulting frequently in unintended humor?  "... Elsie kept Norma Jeane out of school for part of the morning to help her with the leaky Kelvinator washing machine and the wringer that was forever getting stuck and toting baskets of clothes outside...."   

     How else to account for effects that have no discernible adventurous stylistic nor narrative reason and that cause bafflement?  Essential information (the death of Norma Jeane's grandmother and Gladys's contamination from film-cutting chemicals) is referred to, then explored, chapters later, as if introduced for the first time. 

     How else to account for murky observations straining for profundity?  "Film is the repository of that which, failing to be remembered, is immortal."   How to account for forgetful narrative reversals where required?  A doll scorched by fire turns up again.  How to account for an invasion of "suddenly's" and "somehow's" instead of clear narrative reasons?  "... for suddenly I realized ..."  "Yet somehow it happened."   How to account for endless repetition and double-talk?  "The Fair Princess ... is so beautiful because she is so beautiful and because she is the Fair Princess...."  How to account for made-up undecipherable epigraphs on acting?  "The power of the actor is his embodiment of the fear of ghosts."

     How to account for this?  Halfway into the novel a character--not a Canadian--ends sentences by asking, "eh?"  Soon everyone is asking, "eh?"  Ava Gardner enters briefly and asks, "eh?"  Peter Lawford asks, "eh?"  Then "the President" asks, "eh?"  Finally Marilyn asks, "eh?"

     An "Author's Note" informs:  "`Blonde' is a radically distilled `life' in the form of fiction ... synecdoche is the principle of appropriation."  Several such statements anticipate criticism; that disclaimer reads like a blurred excuse.

     Of course, Oates is in firm territory within the literary tradition of fictionalizing real figures.  Recent practitioners include Susan Sontag, E. L. Doctorow, Gore Vidal; all used historical persons, none cited visitations.  Many writers have fictionalized Marilyn without employing her name (Paddy Chayefsky, Doris Grumbach).  Michael Korda used Marilyn's name in "The Immortals," a dismissible novel of almost sublime vulgarity, told from the point of view of a reporter. 

     Oates's synecdochic "appropriation" differs from all others in its presumed seizure of Norma Jeane's voice, an intermittent first-person voice that pretends to reveal Marilyn's most intimate thoughts--in self-recrimination.  ("... her own harsh judgment of herself," Oates unabashedly insists.)  Thus, she takes lines from an actual interview in which Marilyn praised her own sexuality ("sex is a part of nature, and I go along with nature"), and, without differentiating, interjects her own lines, finally twisting Marilyn's celebration into the author's verdict:  "sad, sick cow      piece of meat      c--- that's dead inside."



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