BLONDE

FICTION BY JOYCE CAROL OATES

Fourth Estate Limited, 2000
ISBN: 1-84115-371-0

"I used to get the feeling, and sometimes I still get it, that sometimes I was fooling somebody. I don't know who or what, maybe myself."

Marilyn Monroe’s last interview
Life Magazine, 1962

B londe is not a biography of Marilyn Monroe, but it should be. While I have no idea whether the Norma Jeane of Blonde is close to the historical figure, Ms. Oates’ book makes more sense of this controversial and cloudy icon than any straightforward work of nonfiction ever could. The book, a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, received high praise and also fairly outspoken criticism from book reviewers when it was released.
        Writing a fictional account of such a well-known figure has some risks, but Ms. Oates carries through. Blonde traces Monroe’s life, or rather the life of Norma Jeane Baker, from her Venice beach girlhood to her confused and dazed end. And it is the life of Norma Jeane, for the Norma Jeane of the novel isn’t ‘Marilyn’, as she is referred to in Blonde. Norma Jeane lives ‘Marilyn’ as a vocation, but clings to her own self and name. "You can call me Norma Jeane, that’s what people call me who know me," she says, up until the end. It’s not a surprise to find that Blonde’s conclusion eventually has ‘Marilyn’ in a way destroying Norma Jeane. In fact, none of the conclusions Ms. Oates makes about her character are surprising. But they make sense, which is much more important.
        Blonde constantly returns to the relationship of fantasy to madness, appropriate for the real life Marilyn Monroe, a fantasy creation with a history of insanity in her family. Gladys, Norma Jeane’s glamorous and unstable mother, lives in a fantasy world of film stars where movie stars and studio heads are her friends and cohorts, although she is merely in the film developing department at "the Studio" (in reality, RKO). There is a wonderful scene where Gladys shows Norma Jeane a photo and says, "this is your father." This hugely dramatic moment for the child of six is never fully resolved, and we have no idea who the man in the photo was—a publicity shot of an unknown actor, Norma Jeane’s real father? Or both? The fact that Gladys is committed as a schizophrenic is not unrelated to her daughter Norma Jeane’s double life as ‘Marilyn’. Norma needs ‘Marilyn’. People love ‘Marilyn’, and more than anything Norma Jeane wants to be loved. But giving into her character has costs—‘Marilyn’ can also be demanding. Ms. Oates is masterful in the way she allows the book to be almost as uncertain as Norma Jeane, with her untrustworthy memory and tendency to innocently fabricate. We are only one step ahead of Norma, or maybe not even that, as her life becomes muddled and eventually frightening. This sense that things are coming unglued increases as the book goes on, and reaches its climax at the death of Marilyn/Norma. It’s disturbing, but powerful.
        Physicality is important in the book, and I’m not talking about sex, because it is made clear that being "Marilyn" was rather more uncomfortable than sexy. We have many moments of the physical discomfort of being "Marilyn," actually sewn into a dress almost too tight to breath in, or scalp and groin stinging from peroxide. Norma Jeane is not in touch with her sexuality, and in reality the historical Marilyn was not considered much of a lover. In Blonde, staying sane is more than enough for Norma Jeane to worry about, although she is often seen crossing her arms in front of her breasts, a classic gesture of protection. In a touching scene, she tries to hide the soles of her feet from the lens of the camera in a nude shot. The book jacket photo emphasizes this physicality: it shows a woman in a white halter top from behind, and the straps of the top bear an uncanny resemblance to straps to restrain.
        The portraits of the men in Marilyn’s life are also cohesive and intense, especially the section involving the Playwright (Oates’ code name for Arthur Miller). He, of all Norma Jeanes’s lovers, understands her the most, but like all of them wants to shape her. For Miller, it’s not sexy ‘Marilyn’ who is so seductive, but "Magda," a role out of one of his own plays. The President, who enters near the end of the book, is drawn in one of the most brutal and fascinating vignettes I have read in a long time. Ms. Oates does not hold back in showing how Norma Jeane and ‘Marilyn’ both were exploited sexually. But to further the career of ‘Marilyn’, Norma Jeane learns to bow to necessity and give as many blowjobs as are required. Nowhere does the author rant about sexism, but the point is clear. Even the title, Blonde, is purposeful; Marilyn/Norma was not a blonde. The sexy/innocent appeal of Marilyn Monroe is a question of how women are seen and desired, and Ms. Oates takes the subject seriously. Norma’s helplessness in the face of studio decisions, even at the height of her career, is startling. Her famous nude calendar poses, to which she sold away all rights for $50, tells the story ever clearer of how an image can be used and abused. Even today you can buy a $3,000 print of the photo from a licensed representative of the photographer’s estate.
        In certain places Blonde is a bumpy ride, as the author constantly changes voices and tone, giving some people names and others pseudonyms and varying style in a way Ms. Oates herself called "experimental." I also was never quite sure how the unsure Norma managed to act so reckless as ‘Marilyn.’ But I don’t want to carp—the final result is rather close to brilliant, although people who cherish their own ideas of "the real Marilyn" may feel wronged at Ms. Oates’ ambitious appropriation of the icon. Ms. Oates tackles the strangeness of Marilyn by bypassing ‘Marilyn’ and looking for Norma Jeane. And she finds her.