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 But Blonde isn’t intended as a historical document.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.
Character and plot composed through innumerable manifestations of voice–for example, Norma Jeane’s “earliest memory, so exciting! Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. This was years before she’d been able to comprehend even the rudiments of a movie story, yet she was enthralled by the movement, the ceaseless rippling fluid movement, on the great screen above her.”
Norma Jeane on her sixth birthday, June 1, 1932, with Gladys–“Mother”–young and beautiful, who works at a menial job at The Studio. But there is no Father–who is Norma Jeane’s father? Norma Jeane, who loved to be read to by Gladys because it meant more calm, not “sudden bursts of laughter, or cursing, or tears”; Gladys reading to her from The Little Treasury of American Verse, a poem of Emily Dickinson’s: “Because I could not stop for Death,/He kindly stopped for me;/The Carriage held but just Ourselves/And Immortality.” So, too, Norma Jeane her whole life secretly will name her own characters in the poems she writes, in her tragic–or is it comic?–play, her own invented movie script: Father, Mother, Fair Princess, Dark Prince, Baby, Magic Friend, Rumpelstiltskin, Rin Tin Tin, The Sharpshooter, the Ex-Athlete, the Playwright, Beggar Maid, the President. Mystery. Death.
In the City of Sand, Los Angeles–“built on sand and it is sand. It’s a desert,” Gladys tells her. During the fire season, autumn 1934, Gladys mentally disintegrates (she will be put into a state psychiatric hospital), a “crying sniveling child beside her,” an 8-year-old with a stammer. There is no one to take care of her after her grandmother dies, so she is placed into the custody of the state. Norma Jeane–“I am so ashamed, nobody wants me, I want to die”–a girl of 12, boys and men sexually aroused by her (“Look at the ass on that one, the little blonde!”), hearing, yet blushing and indignantly not-hearing, taught Christian Science by the director of the orphanage (“That God is Mind, and Mind is all, and mere ‘matter’ does not exist”), self-consciously ashamed of her body, startled by her first menses, the heavy flow of her blood. Norma Jeane, 15, living in the foster home of Elsie and Warren Pirig, writing poems and prayers, her sexuality driving men crazy, involved–to what extent?–with several (some of them married), unsuccessfully trying out for the cheerleading team, the Van Nuys high school play (Thornton Wilder’s Our Town), the girls’ choir. Married at 16 (“Where was the bride’s mother?”) to Bucky Glazer, five years older than she is, an embalmer’s assistant who also works the night shift at Lockheed Aviation. Norma Jeane is “sexy like Rita Hayworth. But a girl you’d want to marry like Jeanette MacDonald.” For Norma Jeane: “The fundamental truth of my life whether in fact it was truth or a burlesque of truth: when a man wants you, you’re safe.” Only a year later: “She’s sucking me dry. She’s driving me away…. And the weird thing is, I don’t think she feels much, in her actual body. The way a woman is supposed to feel.” Then the day that Bucky informs her that he’s enlisted in the merchant marine: “No, Daddy! You can’t leave me. I’ll die if you leave me”–Norma Jeane clutching at him, moaning, her breasts pressed against his sweaty chest, trying to straddle him, smacking her thighs against him, coiled tense and quivering. “Stop it!” he shouted into her face, “Stop it! You sad, sick cow.”
Eighteen now, living by herself, working in an aircraft factory–“She was a working girl now”–loading airplane fuselages with liquid plastic. Pain and fever and severe menstrual cramps. “Now there was no one who loved her. Now she was on her own,” 20 years old, divorced (which she mentions to her mother–diagnosed “acute chronic paranoid schizophrenia with probably alcoholic and drug-induced neurological impairment”–on one of her frequent visits to the state hospital). Discovered by a photographer, “as if whoever held that camera was her closest friend. Or maybe it was the camera that was her closest friend,” and made into a Pinup. A Preene model and a contract player at The Studio. “The truth was, her life was hard work, anxious work.” At an acting class she’s laughed at: “Your insides don’t match your outside. You’re a freak.” A meeting arranged by her agent with the head of The Studio, Mr. Z. “Who’s that blonde looking like a tramp one of my so-called friends reported to me Mr. Z had said of me.” “Mr. Z pushing her toward a white fur rug saying, Get down Blondie–and “the hurt of the Thing of hard rubber, I think greased & knobby at the end shoved first between the cracks of my buttocks & then up inside me like a beak plunging in.” “Inside my clothes I was bleeding.” Later that day, she’s told she’ll be cast in the movie. She will need a new name. “I am twenty-one years old & I am MARILYN MONROE.” “Later that day the start of my NEW LIFE.”
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.