Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Joyce Carol Oates
Long before I ever watched Marilyn on film, she already appeared as less and more than human, a curvy mass of contradictions. I was a pre-teen when I first met Norma Jean in Elton John’s 1970s classic "Candle in the Wind." A friend’s teary-eyed mom produced a necktie silk-screened with Andy Warhol’s Marilyn and sat fondling it as she regaled us with sordid theories surrounding the star’s premature death. Raunchy and innocent, tragic and kitsch, she was and is eternally mortal—the Smart Blond who invented the Dumb Blond, the Orphan turned Princess, the Actress who isn’t Acting, the Muse and Torment of Great Men, the Manipulator, the Victim. My generation missed out on any possibility of a fresh encounter with her. We never got to speculate on the identity of the mysterious talent in The Asphalt Jungle (1950) or fantasize over her nude pin-up calendar photo—Miss Golden Dreams (1947). We can’t consume a studio-made Marilyn confection like Gentleman Prefer Blondes without a bitter aftertaste or enjoy the anticipation of awaiting the latest soapy details of her next surprising romance in the press. She was already gone, damned and canonized before we were born. And by the time we became conscious of her, she’d been blown up too large for us to ever see all of her at once.
But now we have Joyce Carol Oates’s ambitious 34th book to provide at least some of that longed-for vicarious thrill and human response. A self-described "distilled" life in the form of fiction, Blonde tells only the backbone of Monroe’s rags-to-rags story, discarding with much of the historical Marilyn in an apparent attempt to see her anew. Beginning when Norma Jean Baker is six, Oates takes huge liberties with her material—excerpting and recreating pieces of biography, mixing real and speculative events, quoting from actual interviews and invented books, choosing to write Marilyn’s poetry and journals herself rather than making use of existing documents. The many foster homes in which Norma Jean lived are, for example, whittled down to one fictionalized Sad Place. The many romances, streamlined to include only a few select men and these presented as abstractions or archetypes: The Ex-Athlete, The Playwright, The President. As for her well known medical crises, they have been condensed to isolated and thus, digestible events: Abortion, Miscarriage, Suicide Attempt.
Needless to say this is a risky and bold venture, sure to offend fanatic Marilyn buffs and sticklers for fact alike. But how else to tackle a subject so exhaustively dissected, reproduced, and projected upon? High and lowbrow writers, artists and musicians, manufacturers of wine and alarm clocks, transvestite impersonators—who has not already used Marilyn? Oates clearly had to choose a radical approach if she was to have any hope of a fresh understanding of the girl behind the woman behind the necktie. And once the reader stops obsessing about which details are true (albeit with difficulty), it’s easy to get sucked in by this no-fail American nightmare story.
Norma Jean, transformed from abandoned waif to child bride to war worker to Miss Aluminum Products 1945 to starlet to goddess to legendary corpse was never, the author suggests, just one person. Fittingly, the book is narrated by an operatic array of voices, from the fleeting thoughts of strangers to the agonized concern of the older men she married, to Norma’s own astonishing range of shifting moods. We see her first acting workshop (and all other classroom situations) through the collective eyes of the group. Here she is the Other, the Freak. When her first meeting with a big studio executive turns out to require brutal sex as a prelude to being cast in her first film, we read it about it in diary form, a girlish scrawl sans punctuation. Here is Norma Jean as frightened self-conscious sex toy and frightenedly ambitious stop-at-nothing slut. A first date with The Ex-Athlete in a restaurant is presented as if by those overhearing the couple at neighboring tables or spying them in mirrors. This is the Norma Jean who is going public, slowly dying to become the Marilyn Monroe we now know.
"Oh, she’s pretty, I guess. This photo. This dress. Gosh! But it isn’t me, is it? What about when people f-find out?" As the Legend is composed out of bleach and tweezers, threats and drugs, as she’s sewn into her costumes and pushed out in front of the cameras, reality is thrown more and more into question for both the actress and the reader. Movie references begin early to set the mood. "If there was music in this scene it would be quick staccato music." Important dialogue sometimes appears in script form, to be said or read or thought. One’s never sure. Characters from Marilyn’s childhood who were probably invented by the author come back into the actress’ adult life as bathroom attendants and musicians in shopping malls that may, on the other hand, be lookalikes. Rattlesnakes slither right out of scary dreams into daylight or illusion. The paranoid mood of the McCarthy era is reflected and magnified by the paranoid mood of a hounded and hunted Hollywood star. "At crucial moments the film careens out of focus," as does Oates’s prose when trying to mirror the actress’ state of mind. Moments of connection with other humans (i.e. consoling her makeup man on the loss of his cat) are told in strictly realistic prose while emotional traumas are described by surrealistic images and disjointed writing fragments. And though some of these become redundant or cloying (too much bad, depressing Marilyn poetry), there are regular startling perceptions. Plucking the ukulele and singing "I wanna be loved by you," she thinks, "Why did the world adore Marilyn? Who despised herself? Was that why?" Meeting Brando: "After I died, Brando would give no interviews about me." At one point, she asks the Ex-Athlete, "D’you ever think, Daddy, how hard it is to figure what other people mean when probably they don’t mean anything?" At another, she’s confused over whether she is a dead sexually mutilated girl she sees on the TV news or herself. Though the author refrains from using the words paranoid schizophrenia except when discussing Marilyn’s mother, Gladys, the diagnosis is impossible to avoid. At the end, (of 737 pages), one is left with as many questions as the traditional biography would answer. Most importantly: Can a fake biography of a real person ever have integrity?
Where the novelist’s craftsmanship works to shape an unruly life, it also leaves one, at times distracted and/or overwhelmed with the temptation to fact-check. Did, for instance, her mentally ill, alcoholic, star-struck mother really advise her to die at the right time or was this simply a clever bit of foreshadowing? Did Marilyn really need to seek out what she called her "Magic Friend" in the mirror in order to go out on the set or is this merely a device to emphasize the actress’ many selves? Did she always call all her husbands "Daddy"? Could The Ex-Athlete have really encouraged her to name Communists for the government? Then too, it’s difficult not to wonder whether practicality played a part in any of these authorial choices, if certain things have been omitted to pre-empt lawsuits? Was Oates unable to get the rights to quote at length from Monroe’s own words?
Blonde might send you to a lawyer for copyright information or to the library for the true dirt on certain salacious episodes (yes, she did peroxide her pubes) but it will also point you back or forward to the stories of Chekhov (with whose women Norma Jean strongly identifies), to Pascal’s "Pensees" (a treasured gift from Brando) and, naturally, to Marilyn Monroe herself in underappreciated films like Don’t Bother to Knock, Bus Stop, and The Misfits.
"Nobody can play the blonde like you," says one unnamed brunette actress toward the end of this finally poignant book. "Always there’s a blonde. There was Harlow and there was Lombard, and there was Turner, and there was Grable; now there’s Monroe. Maybe you’ll be the last?"
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
But I do miss the hymns, / the small, hard apples with their dimpled skin. I do miss / things.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.