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Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates

By on Feb 12, 2010No Comment
Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates

Blonde, author Joyce Carol Oates admonishes, “should be read as a work of fiction, not as a biography.” This is easier said than done. A prodigious work about the life, times and death of Marilyn Monroe, the icon’s mysterious suicide/overdose/murder in 1962 has fueled our Marilyn fantasies and conspiracy theories for decades, making the temptation to read Oates’ big fat Marilyn novel (my edition weighs in at a whopping 738 pages) as fiction rather than fact a very loooong battle with our will.

Published in 2000, Blonde is a thing of terrible beauty. Oates’ prose is lucid, hypnotic, hallucinatory, a magnum opus imagining the internal poetry, vulnerability, and tragedy of  one of history’s greatest movie stars. So compelling is Oates’ storytelling, so hungry is our imagination still for Marilyn, that we find ourselves so deep in the mind’s eye of her stormy life that we, like our beloved blonde, are at risk of being carried away. I, for one, neglected many things over the 2 weeks I devoured the book.

Perhaps superseding Nathaniel West’s Day of The Locust as America’s definitive cautionary tale about the Hollywood Industrial Complex, Blonde unravels Norma Jeane’s life from its destabilized beginnings in the sunny, seaside LA suburb (where Norma and I both spent our formative years) of Venice Beach. The institutionalization of her wack-a-doo mother Gladys, another industry casualty whose hands bear the trauma of celluloid, and the death of her caretaker grandmother send Norma Jeane to a string of orphanages and foster homes.

The most “normal” days of Norma Jeane’s life are her early teens as a student attending Van Nuys High. Her youth, however, is cut short at 16 when she marries Bucky Glazer (James Dougherty in real life) because, as her foster mother forebodes, given her situation this is the only option for a girl like her. When Bucky goes off to the Second World War, Norma, reveling in her first real freedom,  joins the new working women of her generation. She takes a job doing assembly work at an airline factory. It is here that photographer Otto Ose wanders in one day, here where her standout beauty is descried against the backdrop of war and metal, here where Norma Jeane Mortenson Glazer ends and Marilyn Monroe begins.

She may be on her way to stardom, but Marilyn’s fatal spiral into drugs, promiscuity, madness and Hollywood also follows, helped on its downward course by a motley crew of depraved, vampiric and emotionally ill-equipped men. Oates writes that Marilyn’s first meeting with a grim Daryl Zanuck, simply known as “Z” in the book, is a casting couch rape (although there is no couch since it all goes down barbarically on the floor) that happens in a kind of creepy aviary hidden behind his office. Marilyn embarks on a confused, years long 3-way relationship with Cass and Eddy G., the sons of Charlie Chaplin and Eddie Robinson respectively, that is doomed for failure, especially when she discovers she’s pregnant but doesn’t know which bastard, druggie son of a movie star is the father. As we all know, the big, horsey-handsome slugger Joe DiMaggio swoops in for the save, but he is every bit as male, simple and traditional as she is a complex female aberration. Their marriage doesn’t make it a year. By the time the older, unlikely Arthur Miller leaves his wife for Marilyn, we know their union is also doomed, that the father figure she’s been hunting for in all the wrong men is lost to imagination forever. Even Mr. President, a selfish, callous lover in the book, can’t save Marilyn.

Motherless, fatherless, childless, alone, prescriptions and mania her only friends, we know how Marilyn’s story ends. Or do we? It’s Oates’ daring portrait of Marilyn’s final days that keep Blonde, like it’s heroine, alive after the last chapter.

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