Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?
She is MARILYN MONROE when she falls madly in love with her Gemini twin Cass C (the son of Charlie Chaplin). She is Angela in The Asphalt Jungle. Who's the blonde? "Who's the blonde? The blonde is my client, 'Marilyn Monroe,'" says her agent. "M-marilyn is only a career. She hasn't any 'well-being,'" Norma Jeane answers him. Under the name Gladys Pirig, she is a student in a Renaissance-poetry class at UCLA in 1951, reading George Herbert's poem "The Altar" out loud to the class. "Most Promising Starlet 1951." In '52, the role of Nell in Don't Bother to Knock. The release of photographs taken by the Marxist photographer Otto Ose in 1949: "The nude photos of Norma Jeane Baker, a/k/a 'Marilyn Monroe' he'd taken that day would become the most famous, or infamous, calendar nudes in history. For which the model would earn fifty dollars and millions of dollars would be earned by others. By men." "Miss Golden Dreams"--dropped from The Studio. Who tries killing herself. The role of Rose in Niagara is what saves her. She is famous. Lover now both to Cass C and Eddy G (the son of Edward G. Robinson)--Cass C and Eddy G are lovers, too. Pregnant by one of them (which one, she doesn't know). At the party following the Niagara premiere, confronting Mr. Z, in Rose's mocking undertone: "Do you remember that day in September 1947? I was just a girl. I was so scared! I hadn't yet been given my Studio name. Do you remember hurting me, Mr. Z? Do you remember making me bleed, Mr. Z?... Years ago. And then you dropped my contract, Mr. Z. Do you remember?"
Mother's health is deteriorating. She worries about Baby. She is the talk of the media. Rumors she's had sex with hundreds of men. Rumors she's a Benzedrine junkie. She meets the Ex-Athlete, who asked to meet her. The day that she looks for a place to live for Baby and her with Cass C and Eddy G, Cass C nearly dead from a drug overdose--"she knew what she would do." The role of Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes ("For this you killed your baby"). She begins to receive letters signed "Father." "I can't fail. If I fail I must die. This had been Marilyn's secret no one knew. After the Operation. After Baby was taken from her. Her punishment was throbbing uterine pain." Prescribed codeine (for "real or imagined pain"), Benzedrine (for "quick energy"), Nembutal (for "deep dreamless" and "conscienceless" sleep). In January '54, she and the Ex-Athlete marry (in October '54 they're divorced). They visit Japan, the eerie chanting outside their hotel window for Marilyn: Mon-chan! Mon-chan! Mon-chan! "The American Goddess of Love on the Subway Grating, New York City 1954," 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." "Whore! Are you proud? Showing your crotch like that, on the street! My wife!"--the Ex-Athlete, insane with rage, hits her.
Summer 1955, after the divorce, she tries to drown herself. She leaves Los Angeles to live in New York City. She meets the Playwright at the New York Ensemble of Theatre Artists. "Of course, I love you," he says. "I'd like to save you from yourself, is all." He would "rewrite the story of both our lives. Not tragic but American epic!" A decade later, still grieving, he would write: "The intersection between private pathology and the insatiable appetite of a capitalist-consumer culture. How can we understand this mystery? This obscenity?" She is Cherie, 1956, in Bus Stop. "What was happening in Arizona on the Bus Stop location, what had happened in Los Angeles, what she could not tell her lover was a strangeness too elusive to be named." She is pregnant and she miscarries. She is Sugar Kane in Some Like It Hot, 1959, in 1961 Roslyn in The Misfits. A quotation from Pascal is written in her notebook: "Our nature consists in motion; complete rest is death.... The charm of fame is so great that we revere every object to which it is attached, even death." She watches a Marilyn Monroe look-alike onstage at the Club Zuma. "Darling," the Playwright still calls her--"Hadn't she killed this man's love for her by now?" The remaining scenes include: "Divorce (Retake)"; "My House. My Journey"; "The President's Pimp"; "The Prince and the Beggar Maid"; "The President and the Blond Actress: The Rendezvous" (Whitey, her makeup man and most loyal friend: "Miss Monroe what has happened to you since your trip...in April, oh what has happened?"); "Happy Birthday, Mr. President"; "Special Delivery 3 August 1962." The book concludes--a fatal injection of liquid Nembutal by The Sharpshooter sinking "the six-inch needle to the hilt into her heart"?--with a chapter titled "We Are All Gone Into the World of Light."
Seven hundred and thirty-eight pages, textured with cultural, psychical and aesthetic meaning. A critical commentary cannot begin to touch the experience of reading a book of Blonde's magnitude. In these pages in 1990 Henry Louis Gates Jr., in a review of Oates's novel Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart, noted that in the late sixties (shortly after her novel them) Oates confessed to the ambition of putting the whole world in her fiction, an ambition she termed "laughably Balzacian." "It may have seemed so to her," Gates went on, "but no one is laughing now." Since then, Oates has written Black Water, Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang, What I Lived For, Zombie, We Were the Mulvaneys, Man Crazy, My Heart Laid Bare, Broke Heart Blues and Blonde. Oates has become most like William Faulkner. Every novel is a newly invented form of language, a deepening vision of America. No writer today has (paraphrasing what Saul Bellow once told Martin Amis) delved into the mysterious circumstances of being alive at this time in America--explored our entire social strata--to the extent that she has. Oates is 61. She is perennially mentioned for the Nobel Prize. Blonde, one hopes, will be the book that will convince the Swedish academy not to make the same mistake with her that it did with Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Graham Greene.