Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates: a Book Review

Blonde is a work of fiction, not a biography of Marilyn Monroe. I had to keep reminding myself of that as I was reading, because it was so easy to believe in the characters.

Joyce Carol Oates makes it crystal clear in her Author’s Note:

Blonde is a radically distilled “life” in the form of fiction, and, for all its length, synecdoche is the principle of appropriation. In place of numerous foster homes in which the child Norma Jeane lived, for instance, Blonde explores only one, and that fictitious; in place of numerous lovers, medical crises, abortions and suicide attempts and screen performances, Blonde explores only a selected, symbolic few.

… Biographical facts regarding Marilyn Monroe should not be sought in Blonde, which is not intended as a historic document, but in biographies of the subject.

As you would expect it’s a tragic story, intense and shocking in parts. It begins with a Prologue – 3 August 1962 with Death hurtling along towards 12305 Fifth Helena Drive, Brentwood, California. It then follows Norma Jeane Baker’s life in chronological sections from The Child 1932 – 1938 to The Afterlife 1959 – 1962. It switches from one narrator to the next, and from third person to first person perspective throughout. It’s brutal, tender and both lyrical and fragmented.

It focuses on need, on Norma/Marilyn’s need for love and acceptance – to be loved as a person and acknowledged as an actress. She wanted to be good. ‘Marilyn Monroe’ was a role she had to play:

A light must have shone in Norma Jeane’s eyes. An electric current must have run through her supple, eager girl’s body. She was “Marilyn” – no she was “Angela” – she was Norma Jeane playing “Marilyn” playing “Angela” – like a Russian doll in which smaller dolls are contained by the largest doll which is the mother … (pages 256-7)

She took drugs to help her sleep, and drugs to give her energy.She couldn’t cope with ordinary life, it baffled her without a script to follow and no guidance about what was happening, or why. She was driven, desperate to have a baby, desperate to know her father, calling her husbands ‘Daddy’, moody, childlike, fragile, always wanting to do and be better.

Joyce Carol Oates has got really inside this character, so much so that I could believe she’d had access to Norma/Marilyn’s thoughts and feelings. The other characters are intriguing, sometimes just given initials, Mr Z, W, C and so on, others are recognizable through their nicknames – The Ex-Athlete, The Playwright, The Prince and the President for example. But Marilyn is the star. In the Author’s Note Oates lists the sources she has consulted, not just biographies but also books about American politics, Hollywood and books on acting. Marilyn had kept a journal and also written poems, two lines of which are included in the final chapter; the other poems apparently by her are invented. Some of the text is taken from interviews and some is fictitious. But it’s all woven together so skilfully that it’s hard to tell what is from real life and what is not.

For me this ranks as one of Joyce Carol Oates best books, although I have by no means read all her books. The ones I’ve read have all had the power to move me. In addition to the ones I’ve written about on this blog I’ve also read The Tattooed Girl, Middle Age, Solstice and The Falls.