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Review of "Blonde" by Joyce Carol Oates (continued)

     Writers are free to roam uncensored whatever territory they choose.  But Oates should be called into account for taking a few salient and familiar events ("a selected symbolic few") from an actual life (one proximate in living memory), and from the lives of others still living (including Marlon Brando, Arthur Miller, and Marilyn's first husband), and then attaching lurid contrivances in order to fit them into evidence for her preconceived judgement upon that life, even going so far as to assert that her subsequent distortion has been spookily spoken--"at last"--by the subject of that distortion. 

     Rejecting a trashy script about Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe reportedly said, "I hope they don't do that to me."  Reacting to proofs of photographs by Bert Sterne, she drew X's with red ink over those she disapproved of.  They survive, shamelessly blown up, published.  The slashes seem inked with blood.

     "When confronted with the choice of enhancing Norma Jeane, or degrading her, as others have, I opted always for enhancing," Oates' statement about her novel maintains.  Yet evidence abounds that to fulfill the allegorical requirements for "blonde" martyrdom, the author needed more abuse and added her own.  Is it conceivable, otherwise, that Norma Jeane's "fingers encircling [Oates's] wrist" would guide the author's hand to write passages included in this novel?  Ignoring Oates's silly arrogation of Norma Jeane's identity, one may wonder how Marilyn, protective of her image, would react to portions of this book.  She would encounter the following among many more linked to her name, some of which cannot be included in this paper:

     A scene in which her first husband ("the Embalmer's Boy"), redolent of embalming fluid, makes her up with cosmetics used on corpses--and takes erotic "before" and "after" pictures of her.                

     References to her soiling herself, her "hot scalding" urine, harsh periods, demeaning sexual positions.

       Remarks ascribed to a nameless chorus but which Oates invents:  "Look at you!  Cow.  Udders and c--- in everybody's face."  "Can't get enough of Polish sausage."  "You no more could predict what might emerge from that luscious Marilyn mouth than you could guess, or estimate ..." etc.   

     A scene of her being sodomized with a "Thing ... hard rubber," next to an aviary of "dead stuffed birds."

     An account--necessarily paraphrased here--of her returning to "the Playwright" in graphic squalid disarray from an earlier sexual encounter, with "the stink of the other's cigarette smoke (Camel's) in her matted hair...."

     A list of "Her lovers!"--including "Z, D, S, and T ... Lugosi ... Karloff ... Roy Rogers and Trigger ... Lassie...." 

     An incident during which "a Valentine" turns out to be toilet paper with the word "WHORE" written in excrement.

     A passage during which she fellates an indifferent "President," after which she's raped anonymously, urinates in the hall, is slapped by a secret serviceman, bleeds, and has a "wad of toilet paper" pressed to her wound.

     A crassly cruel joke, again only suggested here, exchanged between "the President" and "one of his buddies" (in the presidential box!--as she "coos" "Happy Birthday" to him from the stage), derisively comparing her singing with her sexuality.

     Yet Oates's character pleads with a photographer--as Marilyn pled with her last interviewer:  "Don't make me into a joke ... I beg you." 

     If, indeed, Oates opted for "enhancing" Norma Jeane when another choice would "degrade" her, and since those passages and others more audacious (the worst is reserved for her death) are Oates's fabrications, what alternatives occurred to her that would be even more degrading?

     In constant expressions of disdain for her own male characters, Oates repeatedly describes their penises:  "angry as a fist," "engorged with urine, sizzling and steaming into the toilet," a "tumescent sword," an "unruly pet," "frantic, bobbing," "limp and spent ... like an aged slug."  Even the ringing of a telephone becomes:  "That jarring sound, that sound of mockery ... that sound of male reproach."  

     In the single understatement explaining her novel, Oates acknowledges the "harshness of certain male portraits," but she hastens to inform that "these are from the perspective of Norma Jeane."  (So!  Norma Jeane made her do it!)

     In a further bizarre distortion, Oates transforms two heterosexual men (minor Hollywood actors remembered only because of their famous fathers) into a pair of the most malicious gay men in memory.  Marilyn's brief affair with Charles Chaplin, Jr.--known for affairs with women--ended when he found her with his brother.  In Oates's reversal, Marilyn finds Chaplin, Jr. in bed with Edward G. Robinson, Jr., himself not known to be gay.  To extend their villainy beyond the grave, she has Chaplin, Jr. die before Marilyn.  (He outlived her by six years).  He leaves behind a note that finally reveals a vicious years-long charade the two devised involving Marilyn's lost father.  The note is carried to her by "Death" mounted on a bicycle.

     Is there a touch of resentment in morose accounts of Marilyn's life that attempt to undermine the fact that she accomplished what she set out to do, at least early in her life--to become a quintessential figure of desire?  That is no mean attainment for a woman or a man.  Is there a trace of envy in compromising Marilyn's exultation of her beauty?  Is it possible to view her famous photographs and doubt that she delighted, justifiably, in her glorious body and face, and in the projection of her sensational sensuality? 

     However tragic Marilyn Monroe became, however abused by men-(and she did become tragic, and she was abused by men, and by the women who ridiculed her), in turning her into a symbolic martyr, Oates demeans Marilyn's genuine sensuality, strips her dignity, reduces her strengths:  surviving ruinous scandals, remaining financially independent during marriages to dominating men, and not relying on alimony afterwards; challenging the House Un-American Activities Committee; founding her own production company; proving herself a splendid actress, a highly intelligent woman.

     Despite Oates's many disclaimers, the emergent portrayal is one of scorn for Marilyn Monroe.  Without denying Oates's right to convey it, one may, with equal authority, assert one's indignation.

     But no one, finally, can diminish Norma Jeane's grand triumph, the creation of the most astonishing figure in Hollywood history, the masterpiece called Marilyn Monroe.

John Rechy
Los Angeles, California
April 2000

 
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