Tuesday, October 25, 2016

"Blonde": Was Marilyn a Nasty Woman?

"She is more to be pitied than censured, /She is more to be helped than despised."
-- William B. Gray

Joyce Carol Oates's Blonde (2000) is an epic, Moby-Dickian novel about Marilyn Monroe in which "the characterizations and incidents . . . are totally the products of the author's imagination."*

"A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us," according to Franz Kafka, and Blonde is that and much more. I'm all thawed out now! The novel reached right through my chest and pierced my shrunken heart until it cried out. It is one of the saddest books I've ever read.

According to a great deal of research (Trust me!), reading complex literature increases one's capacity for empathy, and Blonde certainly does that.

Some examples: You will feel the sometimes muted or hidden anxiety of a young child with no true home, no functioning parents, a child who is handed off to a variety of foster homes where she encounters despicable behavior at the hands of men who find irresistible her vulnerability and already perfect body.

For many, many pages, you will suffer the anguish of growing up in unhealthy, unpredictable, often uncaring environments. You'll know -- or be reminded -- how it feels to crave love; to be uncertain who "I" is when you sing "I Want to Be Loved by You." 

Oates's Marilyn is amorphous, protean, a self with no borders. She is Norma and "Marilyn" and ""Lorelei,"" or whichever character she is being at the time.

Men, especially, will reflect more on how so many women daily prepare to go on stage, i.e., to work, and how carefully they create today's face, and how clothes must say the right things about them, e.g., "She knows what's fashionable," "She knows how that skirt should fit," "She knows how to apply makeup without looking like a tramp," "She can apply a fragrance that is redolent of nothing human, but is instead sweet and alluring, surrounding her with an olfactory aura, without smelling like a low-rent cat house." 
Marilyn the autodidact

How does she -- any woman, not just Marilyn -- do it? How can she bear to walk from here to there knowing she is being watched and judged, knowing that her buttocks can quickly become her ass, depending on the way her clothes fit or the way she walks? 

You will feel and ponder these things, and much more, due primarily to two of Oates's many gifts as a writer: First, her ability to climb inside a character's consciousness and, painful as it may be, stay firmly entrenched there for the balance of the book, in this case for 738 pages -- not one of which is superfluous.
This can't be easy and it can't be pleasant. I don't know how Oates goes about her life in this condition, unless the company of cats provides a series of mini-sabbaticals throughout the process.

Second, her prose is exact, uncluttered, vivid, fresh. Oates would never say, for example, "Her prose is clear as the blue sky above, and she avoids cliches like the plague," even though these statements are true. She never use similes or metaphors you've heard before, unless they come from the mouth of a character who would use them.

And speaking of the mouths of characters, her narration benefits from her adept use of something called "free indirect discourse," in which the narrator's voice slips seamlessly into the style and tone of one of her characters. She also allows various characters to suddenly take over the narration, but this isn't done in a showy early-postmodern way -- it's more like she holds up a mike to a witness and lets the witness have her say. 

Blonde will remind you, dear students, of some works we read in AP Lit. Marilyn, for example, is a nasty woman like Hester Prynne, Sarah Woodruff, and Blanche DuBois. 
My student Darren Donahue immortalized Marilyn on a ceiling tile.
In America's rigid, cruelly sanctimonious first Puritan era, Hester survives, finds out who she really is, and redeems herself in the eyes of her community by transforming her letter "A" from "Adultery" to "Able." 

In the 1950s, our second Puritan era, Marilyn isn't so fortunate. In a way, her posing nude for the Golden Dreams calendar before her career blossomed becomes her "A," and the Studio brass comes down heavily on her for it. Not to oversimplify, but then they have sex with her.

Then she spends the rest of her career on Hester's scaffold, while a hypocritical society watches this voluptuous Pygmalion, transformed by men of power into America's sex queen or sex doll, as she teases and arouses viewers with her trademark walk, the camera loving it, loving the shaking hips, leering at the fullness of her freakishly sensual body.

Like John Fowles' Sarah Woodruff from his Victorian parody-homage French Lieutenant's Woman, Marilyn is deprived of the joys (such as they are) of the conventional domesticated woman. Like Sarah, she is "beyond the pale," but unlike Sarah, it isn't her choice. She's trapped. Baby isn't going to come. Daddy will not even reveal himself.
"Blonde" changed the way I see this picture.

And like Blanche DuBois, she suffers a great loss, one that haunts her the remainder of her days. Like Blanche, Marilyn has "many intimacies with strangers," and, at times, that "is all [she] could fill [her] empty heart with." There were many, many men willing to help with that, moving on her like a bitch, exploiting her because they could.

When we read Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, some of you were put off and disoriented when you learned that the Tim in the book was fictional, even though he shared a handful of experiences with Tim the author.

To put this problem in a short, sub-Spark-Notes way, fictional Tim gave writer Tim the freedom to turn "happening truth" into "story truth," i.e., into art, which according to Picasso is "a lie that makes us realize the truth."  

In Blonde, Oates performs this bit of alchemy by either bypassing events that actually happened or coalescing them into a single incident or character that reveals what truly matters. She tells the truth by "lying" about it. 

I'm eager to know if your response to all of this will differ from mine.

Accepting Marilyn as a fictional figure was difficult for me. I first met her when, as a 4-year old, I peeled a picture of flowers off the lid of my uncle's cedar box (could've been a cigar box) revealing a completely naked woman who seemed to be sniffing her left armpit (she wasn't). My heart raced, and I left the room quickly before I was caught, vowing I would never step foot in there again, so in a couple of hours I returned for another look.

The naked woman, I learned much later, was a very young Marilyn, her picture taken for the scandalous Golden Dream calendar. I would later see Marilyn in many movies, going with my dad, who for some reason wanted to see her entire body . . . of work. Today these films would receive a PG rating. It was the Fifties. All the porn happened off screen.

In my childhood, Marilyn and Queen Elizabeth II were the most famous women in the world. I remember girls imitating her walk, and imitating other girls imitating her walk. I remember her marriage to Joe DiMaggio, then Arthur Miller. I remember her death and the mixed responses to it. Oh, and I remember Elton John's "Candle in the Wind" when it was about Marilyn before it was tweaked to become a dirge for Princess Di.

There is no person in 2020, dear students, comparable to Marilyn. So I think you will get something from Oates's novel that I didn't. You may well fall into it as the great work of fiction it is, and see, being less distracted by the historical Marilyn, how Oates, while telling a story about the Blonde Actress, lifts the veil that hides a shameful culture in which people of power exploit, control and exhaust even the most vulnerable of their fellow humans (Amy Winehouse comes to mind) in the name of profit.

Really sickening. Sordid. But I'm reminded that Edward Albee said every work of art is an "act of optimism," and I agree. And I agree with my buddy Oscar Wilde's assertion that "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all."

This well-written jewel will immerse you rather deeply in a swamp of exploitation and immorality. But once you surface and shower, your vision will clear and your heart will grow.

I'm sure of it.

*From the copyright page of Blonde


  1. I'm about a sixth of the way through it. It's not a science book, but it's not bad. ;) Your review, however, is glorious!

  2. Bumping this to the top of my reading list. You had me at Sarah Woodruff. Thank you for sharing this with me!

    1. I just saw this! So: My pleasure. You'd like any number of her books. The Gravedigger's Daughter, for ex. And a novella called Black Water which is the Chappaquidic -- however the hell it's spelled -- story told from the victim's pov.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Sarah Woodruff a nasty woman? Wow, of course. Any chance you have a review of FLW to post? One of my favourite books, I'd love to hear your take in detail. As for Blonde... You articulated every informed thought I had when reading it, just like JCO does, thank you!