Estate Limited, 2000
"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,
Marilyn Monroes last interview
Life Magazine, 1962
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
Writing a fictional
account of such a well-known figure has some risks, but Ms. Oates
carries through. Blonde traces Monroes 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 isnt 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, thats what people call me who know
me," she says, up until the end. Its not a surprise
to find that Blondes 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.
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 Jeanes
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 wasa publicity shot of an unknown actor, Norma Jeanes
real father? Or both? The fact that Gladys is committed as a schizophrenic
is not unrelated to her daughter Norma Jeanes 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 costsMarilyn
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. Its disturbing, but powerful.
important in the book, and Im 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.
of the men in Marilyns life are also cohesive and intense,
especially the section involving the Playwright (Oates code
name for Arthur Miller). He, of all Norma Jeaness lovers,
understands her the most, but like all of them wants to shape
her. For Miller, its 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. Normas 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 photographers 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 dont want to carpthe
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.