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Oates's imagined Monroe

By Julia Hanna

APRIL 24, 2000: 

Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco Press/HarperCollins), 738 pages, $27.50.

It makes sense through an odd sort of math that the infamously prolific Joyce Carol Oates would eventually collide with one of American culture's most analyzed icons. Blonde, a "biographical novel" about Marilyn Monroe, at first appears to straddle one of those slippery between-genres territories. Oates calls it (in an extended "Author's Note") "a radically distilled 'life' in the form of fiction," and though some readers might quibble that the novel is as long as most biographies these days, Blonde makes the choices of any good story, deftly channeling its narrative flow, a mix of sharply drawn dramatic scenes, feverish interior monologues, and "biographical" summary. Such leeway is the advantage of fiction, and Oates uses it to create a woman who shoots well beyond the expected mark of Marilyn as the ultimate sexpot/baby doll/fill-in-your-favorite-fantasy blonde.

This Marilyn thrums with a maddeningly complex life all her own. She sweats and vomits her way through stagefright. She brings a desperate ferocity and psychological power to her work (the chapters named for screen roles offer a fascinating close-up of her instinctive "technique"). The few false notes are struck when Oates falls back on the received notion of Monroe as a helpless "Candle in the Wind" victim of her sex-goddess beauty. True as it may be, the victim scenario -- like any scenario that robs a protagonist of choices -- saps the tension and life out of fiction.

It would be just as wrong, of course, to ignore the fact that looks had a lot to do with Monroe's stardom, and Oates isn't afraid to dramatize the power of Marilyn's physical beauty in descriptions that take unexpected turns. Bewildered by the mercurial moods of his young wife, Joe DiMaggio (referred to only as "the Ex-Athlete") is startled to see a freshly showered, naked Monroe guiltily cleaning their clothes-strewn bedroom: "In that instant her body seemed to him not a woman's beautiful voluptuous body but a responsibility they jointly shared, like a giant baby." Blonde is composed of a multitude of such small, close-up moments, each adding to the next, until the suffocating weight of being the world's most celebrated sex symbol is palpable.

The pressure builds gradually. After the success of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Monroe is inundated with fan mail, to which she dutifully responds by autographing hundreds of studio photos "until her wrist ached and her vision swam. Tasting panic, then realizing: The hunger of strangers can never be appeased." She finds refuge by immersing herself in roles, both on and off camera. In a desperate attempt to be the "good wife," Monroe puts in time at her mother-in-law's side, gamely chopping onions for the Ex-Athlete's pasta sauce, but the simple fact of his family's normalcy both bores and frightens her: "Daddy [as she calls the DiMaggio character, and indeed all the men in her life], it's so scary: how a scene with actual people goes on and on? Like on a bus? What's to stop it?"

Although "family" is a foreign concept to Monroe, Oates makes it clear from the start why she would spend a lifetime hungrily searching for the unconditional love it represents to her. Her mother, Gladys Mortenson, is depicted with horrifying, gothic detail that is classic Oates. Her father, meanwhile, is equally oppressive through his absence. Six-year-old Norma Jeane learns to fear what she thinks of as "movie talk," which is the language Gladys -- a failed actress working as a film cutter -- speaks most of the time. In a doomed attempt to appease her mother's mad rantings, the child learns the importance of acting: "Norma Jeane smiled. Smiling meant that you understood but you were happy not-understanding."

Anyone knows the story of a woman looking for love in all the wrong places is bound have a sad ending, especially when the woman is Marilyn Monroe. But Oates's narrative is infused with a relentless, inventive energy that's well suited to its kaleidoscopic heroine. Blonde wills your attention with its gothic excess much as Monroe did with her over-the-top perfection, but it does so in scenes far from the twinkling artificiality of Monroe's films. One morning "the Playwright" rises early to discover his pregnant wife is missing. He finds her on the steps of the cellar: " . . . in that instant she turned, her azure eyes widened even as the pupils were dilated, unseeing . . . she held in both hands a plate and on the plate there was a chunk of raw hamburger, leaking blood; she'd been eating the hamburger from the plate, like a cat, and licking the blood."

Oates's Marilyn is scary. Living in a drugged twilight state, she nonetheless orchestrates her death with the finesse of a Hollywood director, even ensuring that her make-up man will render his services one last time. The intrusion of a hoky CIA "sharpshooter" at Monroe's deathbed is unfortunate. Sent to silence "the President's blond whore," he distracts from the triumphant scene played in the darkened theater of Norma Jeane's mind: "I ran along the beach barefoot & my hair whipping in the wind. It was Venice Beach, it was early morning, I was alone & the burning Princess was dead. & I was alive."


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