by Joyce Carol Oates

Published by HarperCollins

738 pages, 2000

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Reviving Marilyn

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning


The cinematic images are so familiar that by now they need no explanation: a young, buxom, platinum-haired woman standing on a subway grating with her white dress billowing up above her knees. Or wiggling along a train platform in stiletto heels and a sausage-casing dress, prompting a man to turn to his buddy and exclaim that her walk is "like Jell-O on springs."

This is Marilyn Monroe, not so much a person as a property, a figment of the culture's collective imagination for the past 50 years. Whether she was ever an actual person is debatable, since her screen persona was as carefully fabricated as her name. Veteran novelist Joyce Carol Oates has taken the rich but tragic stuff of Marilyn's life -- the wretched childhood with a psychotic mother, the marriage at 16, the nude calendar girl phase, then sudden, capricious, baffling stardom -- and fictionalized it in a 700-page-plus epic that microscopically examines every painful detail.

Oates appears to have developed a deep obsession with the minutiae of Monroe's life, so that even the smallest episodes are imbued with great psychological weight. The result is a pretty heavy read, practically devoid of joy or even a sense of hope. The problem is that we know the ending already, but keep on reading in horrified fascination as we'd stare at the scene of a catastrophic car wreck.

Fortunately Oates is a seasoned author who probably couldn't write badly if she tried. But it looks as if this book got away from her. She worked on the Marilyn story for many years, finally submitting a monolithic draft which had to be edited almost in half. Even with these drastic cuts it still feels too bulky, as if another 300 pages could have been removed with no ill effect.

When the very premise of a book is flawed, it's hard to make a go of it, but Oates is a skilled enough writer to gamely try. Norma Jeane Baker came into the world unwanted, her father a shadowy unknown, her mother, Gladys, a sad, sick fringe-dweller on the Hollywood scene. Oates puts a tremendous amount of energy into her portrayal of the alcoholic, schizophrenic Gladys, a macabre figure who haunts the book to its final pages: "Norma Jeane saw uneasily that other adults, especially men, were fascinated by her mother, the way you'd be fascinated by someone leaning too far out of a high window or bringing her hair too close to a candle flame." Gladys has a frayed-around-the-edges kind of beauty, suggesting possibilities that died in the bud: "A woman in the classic mode of the enigmatic Garbo, if you didn't look too closely."

Norma Jeane is torn between loving her mother and loathing her frightening illness and inability to cope. When Gladys can't manage any more, her daughter is shunted off to her grandmother's house, then to an orphanage where she must learn to survive without love. Such an upbringing makes it impossible for a core of self-esteem to develop, meaning that Norma Jeane's personality lacked a foundation. In its place was only a chasm of raw, unfulfilled need.

One of the more horrible aspects of the Monroe tragedy is that this abyss of need was a big part of her charm. Men loved her fragility and vulnerability, noticing that there was "something taut and nervous and excitable and flamelike in her face." For the purposes of fiction the series of foster homes she endured is boiled down into one, in which the father lusted after her and the mother got her married off at 16 to solve the "problem."

Then it's the Marilyn-as-War-Bride phase, which Oates explores in as much detail as everything else. With her young husband away, Norma Jeane tries her hand at being Rosie the Riveter but makes better money with less sweat as a nude pinup girl. She discovers the power of her physical beauty, the only power she has ever known, and begins to exploit it, little knowing that soon those around her would begin to feed off it as if devouring a precious natural resource.

Calendar photography leads to bit-parts in movies, and finally a break with a major role in a film called Niagara. Norma Jeane is rechristened Marilyn (a name she loathes), her honey-brown hair bleached platinum, her voluptuous shape sewn into skin-fitting costumes. With her innocence still intact, she is a "girl child squeezed into the body of a fully mature female."

The rest of Marilyn's short life can be summed up in two words: movies and men. In her craft, she veers between painful perfectionism and total sloppiness, showing up hours late or too drug-addled to perform. But the camera is in love with her. Directors are amazed when viewing the day's rushes, when her seemingly bland performances shine with a kind of eerie sexual luminescence:


A lush-bodied girl in the prime of her physical beauty. In an ivory georgette crepe sundress with a halter top that gathers her breasts up in soft undulating folds of the fabric. She's standing with bare legs apart on a New York subway grating. Her blond head is thrown rapturously back as an updraft lifts her full, flaring skirt, exposing white cotton panties. White cotton! The ivory-crepe sundress is floating and filmy as magic. The dress is magic. Without the dress the girl would be female meat, raw and exposed.

In her personal life Marilyn is a magnet for disaster, attracting bottom-feeders like Charlie Chaplin Jr. and Edward G. Robinson Jr., "cast-off sons of Hollywood royalty" soaked in drugs and decadence. She is not above performing Monica Lewinsky-like sexual favors for producers in exchange for juicy parts. Her ultimate customer is a ruthless John F. Kennedy who uses her, then throws her aside like a soiled rag.

Throughout the book, Oates uses a device which is probably intended to add a mythic/mysterious quality but which can sometimes seem unnecessarily coy. She uses code-names, initials or fairy-tale names for some of the characters, forcing us to guess who she is writing about (for example, two of her husbands, Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, are called the Ex-Athlete and the Playwright). Marilyn, the Fair Princess, is only a thin veneer to cover the despairing heart of Norma Jeane, the Beggar Maid. The Dark Prince shifts back and forth in identity from a fantasy figure to the actor Marlon Brando.

Because Blonde is a work of fiction, Oates can get away with taking certain liberties with the facts. But there is a drawback in this technique. A horrific abortion scene evokes pity until it raises the question, "Did this really happen?" It is unsettling to think that a modern author would wish to embroider and riff on a cultural icon's life, raising the suspicion that this is just a new kind of exploitation 50 years after the fact.

Perhaps this is the most disturbing aspect of Blonde: Oates' apparent lack of compassion for her subject. Repeatedly she refers to Marilyn's "mammalian" body, reducing her to something less than a human being. The micro-dissection of each and every bad turn in the hapless woman's life feels like a sort of voyeurism. Though it is written in the most polished and elegant prose, what is behind Blonde is a disturbing need to feed off human tragedy. Becoming public property is the thing that did Marilyn in, but even after all these decades she is still fair game for a writer's pen in a culture that will not let the poor woman rest in peace. | June 2000


Margaret Gunning has reviewed over 130 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has written a novel (A Singing Tree) and a book of poems (Nonsongs and Neopsalms), and is currently at work on her second novel, Better than Life.