This review ran in the Chicago Tribune on Sunday, July 16, 2000.
If Edmund Morris' "Dutch" is a work of fiction posing as a memoir of Ronald Reagan, Joyce Carol Oates' massive new work, "Blonde," is a biography of Marilyn Monroe posing as fiction. Neither one thing nor the other, both are hybrids where the lines between the real and the fictional are transgressed with impunity by the authors, making it difficult for the reader to discern the truth.
"'Blonde' should be read solely as a work of fiction, not as a biography of Marilyn Monroe," says a note on the copyright page. Yet that is hard to do, since this book draws so heavily for its content from Monroe's life. Indeed, in an introductory note, Oates tells us about the biographies and historical references she has consulted, as well as material she has invented or appropriated from other contexts, in putting together what she calls "a radically distilled â€˜life' in the form of fiction." Still, even with Oates' disclaimers and notes, the temptation is strong to read this book as a true portrait of Monroe, albeit one drawn with artistic imagination and license, and cast in what Oates has called a "posthumous narration" by Norma Jeane herself.
It is a credit to oates that she has created a character of psychological credibility and resonance. In fact, it could be argued that this Postmodernist blending of the real and the imagined is a particularly effective way to render subjects like Ronald Reagan and Marilyn Monroe, ordinary people who became extraordinary, larger-than-life icons of our celebrity-infatuated culture, people whose very lives were amalgams of self-creation, hype, myth, and reality.
This is not the first time Oates has developed easily recognizable fictionalized versions of famous or infamous people and events. "Black Water" recreated the last hours of the life of a young woman drowned off Chappaquiddick in a senator's car. "Zombie" was based loosely on the serial killer and sexual predator Jeffrey Dahmer. Fictionalized historical personages move into and out of her novels, especially in her tongue-in-cheek reimaginings of 19th Century genres, such as "Bloodsmoor Romance" and "Mysteries of Winterthurn." Much more directly than most writers, Oates draws inspiration from the major currents of American life and culture, as well as from people and places she has known personally or researched deeply.
For this novel, she has obviously studied Marilyn Monroe with care, finding material as sensationalistic, seamy and sordid as that in her most luridly imagined works. Indeed, while not known for her understatement and restraint, Oates felt the need to pare down the Marilyn material. She points out in the introductory note that she has used synecdocheâ€“the part for the whole: one foster home for several and "in place of numerous lovers, medical crisis, abortions and suicide attempts and screen performancesâ€¦only a selected, symbolic few." Ironically, Monroe's life was more melodramatic than fiction can convincingly be.
Nonetheless, this life is a particularly appropriate subject for Oates. Norma Jeane Baker is the quintessential Oates girl writ large. As so many Oatesian heroines before her, she is an intelligent, attractive young girl of an impoverished background, plagued with a weak sense of self, an overpowering, mentally unstable mother and a lost father. Like them, she longs for meaning, connection and deliverance. Like them, she is mesmerized by the compelling myths about womanhood recreated on the silver screen: She is the Beggar Maid who longs to be the Fair Princess rescued by the Dark Prince. Ultimately, in her fairy-tale life and on the screen, she lives out these myths and experiences their demeaning and debasing underside. For "Blonde" is fundamentally an expose of the misogyny at the heart of American culture emblematized in the "dumb blond" sex goddess, Marilyn Monroe.
As Oates' writes, "Her problem wasn't she was a dumb blonde, it was she wasn't a blonde and she wasn't dumb." There is an increasing disconnect between the image she projects and "the eager hopeful young girl who was Norma Jeane." Repeatedly, her extraordinary sexual allure and her flagrant female body both define and degrade her. They are her key to advancement and fame and to denigration and destruction. We follow her early years with her deranged mother (who among other horrific things tries to dunk her daughter in scalding water), through her life in the orphanage and then with her foster parents. Her foster mother marries her off at 16 because she anticipates that her husband will be unable to resist her. Shortly thereafter, while working in a factory during her husband's overseas duty during war, Norma Jeane is discovered by a pinup photographer and transformed, after demeaning sexual favors, into a starlet. "I was not a tramp or a slut. Yet there was the wish to perceive me that way. For I could not be sold any other way I guess. And I saw that I must be sold. For then I would be desired, and I would be loved."
Her "Magic Friend" is her image in the mirror and on the screen. She has faith in her ability to evoke it, but not in herself. She is a gifted actress because she understands and appropriates the lives of the characters she portrays and because she has an uncanny ability to project her sexualized image before the camera; she has much less success assuming the persona of her own self. As Marilyn Monroe assumes ascendancy, Norma Jeane is eclipsed. She is both a star and a joke. She is at once adored and abhorred, lusted after and loathed. While at the height of her success as an actress, she receives a one-word message in excrement: "Whore."
The mythic, unreal quality of her actual life is emphasized by Oates' generic labeling of characters. The Blond Actress meets and marries the Ex-Athlete and later the Playwright, each of whom she calls Daddy. She longs for but never meets her father, whom her mother had mythologized as a famous actor. A bitter revelation late in the novel is that letter she had received periodically signed "your tearful Father" are a fiction perpetrated by her friend and one-time lover Cass Chaplin, whose death is a harbinger of her own, as she sinks into drug dependency, despondency, and depression. Before that is the degrading relationship with the quintessential Dark Prince, the President of the United States. Her contemptuous use and abuse at the hands of the President and the President's Pimp are almost unbearable in their crude humiliation and abnegation of her personhood. She is dismissed by the President's handlers as "sexpot Marilyn Monroe, who was a junkie, a nymphomaniac, suicidal, and schizzy." It remains only for the Sharpshooter, representing the faceless FBI agents and operatives who inhabit the novel, to finish her off.
To reduce this capacious novel to such a cryptic summary is to sell short its densely portrayed and felt life. Oates has successfully looked behind the commodified image of Marilyn Monroe and found a character of convincing complexity, depth and sensitivity. In Oates' Postmodernist portraitâ€“which is sympathetic but not sentimentalizedâ€“Norma Jeane is accorded the respect she could not find in life.
Joanne V. Creighton is president and professor of English at Mt. Holyoke College.