| 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
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
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
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
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
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.
"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
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
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