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 But Blonde isn’t intended as a historical document.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.