In Moby-Dick, in the chapter “The Fossil Whale,” Ishmael proclaims: “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.” The theme of Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde–well, it’s about as mighty as you can get. In an Author’s Note, Oates characterizes the book as “a radically distilled ‘life'”–the life of Norma Jean Baker, a k a Marilyn Monroe–“in the form of fiction.” But Blonde is no more a book about the life of Norma Jean Baker or Marilyn Monroe than Moby-Dick is–a novel? an epic? a fable? a high-seas adventure tale? a single sustained metaphor charged with meaning?–about a whale. A mighty book? I’ll say. Blonde is one mighty, tremendous book.
A multitude of possible readings–where does one begin? Perhaps by asking how one writes fiction about a historical person who’s been imagined at every level of our culture? Oates warns us not to look in Blonde for biographical facts. Yes, she has consulted a number of biographical works. But Blonde isn’t intended as a historical document. Nor is Oates writing (as Graham McCann did in Marilyn Monroe or Norman Mailer in Marilyn) a subjective account of Marilyn Monroe as a mythic figure. Blonde is fiction, yet Oates isn’t completely free to invent Norma Jean Baker/Marilyn Monroe any more than Don DeLillo was free to create Lee Harvey Oswald in Libra.
One thing: The mere ambition demands a book of epic proportions. After a “Prologue: 3 August 1962,” Blonde plays out in five substantial sections, each corresponding to a period of time: Part I, “The Child 1932-1938″; Part II, “The Girl 1942-1947″; Part III, “The Woman 1949- 1953″; Part IV, “‘Marilyn’ 1953-1958″; Part V, “The Afterlife 1959-1963.” Yet, Oates reminds us, for all its length, the principle of appropriation employed here is synecdoche. Details are not used to provide facts but, instead, constitute the essence–the very being–of her subject.
How does Oates form the essence of this child, this girl, this woman Norma Jean Baker/Marilyn Monroe? Through the voice of NJ/MM herself. In Blonde Oates creates character and plot through one of the most complex vocal compositions in American fiction. NJ/MM’s voice is, first of all, that of an omniscient narrator, speaking from outside of time. The omniscient voice is constantly changing tense and person, however, adopting the voice of other characters and observers, at times assuming an almost documentary quality similar to a movie voiceover. Yet NJ/MM’s voice is also intensely internalized–an inner voice at once intimate, sensual and ecstatic. Because the omniscient voice is also an inner voice, the reader never quite knows if what is being said can be objectively determined. But due to the force of the narration, we don’t really care. What some critics have found problematic–how Oates’s NJ/MM corresponds with our own knowledge and sense of her–really isn’t. The voice of Norma Jeane (Oates adds the “e”) is so compelling we’re immediately transported into the mystery, into the being, of this individual personality.
A voice above all–yet in Oates’s portrait of Norma Jeane/Marilyn, the voice of an artist. One of the deepest metaphors in Blonde is the art of acting. As Henry James said: “To live in the world of creation–to get into it and stay in it–to frequent it and haunt it–to think intensely and fruitfully–to woo combinations and inspirations into being by a depth and continuity of attention and meditation–this is the only thing.” This living in the world of creation is, in Blonde, who Norma Jeane Baker/ Marilyn Monroe most profoundly is. The “Prologue: 3 August 1962″ begins, “There came death…” August 5, 1962, we know, is the day that Marilyn Monroe died. The movement toward her death is what projects Blonde‘s plot. But there are also two ontological visions simultaneously being plotted in Blonde. There is the is-ness of the omniscient inner-narrative voice, an expression of the essence of its speaker. Then there is the is-ness that Octavio Paz in his essay “The Other Voice” refers to as the “psychic disorder” of the creative self. One pole of this disorder, Paz says, is a “mania…a sacred fury, an enthusiasm, a transport”; the other, an “absentia,” an “inner emptiness.” Combined, we have “fullness and emptiness, flight and fall, enthusiasm and melancholy: poetry.” Oates in Blonde suggests that this disorder–this passion–is in each one of us. Marilyn’s Monroe’s “life”–as well as what we make of it–may just tell us something about who we are.