Written by Joyce Carol Oates
Published by Ecco-HarperCollins
Review by Deanna Northrup
Blonde is a massive biographical novel about the short, fascinating life of Norma Jeane Baker aka Marilyn Monroe. As usual, Joyce Carol Oates writes in an omniscient point-of-view, but in Blondeshe drifts between first person and third person, somehow without it feeling like a mistake. And, inserted almost haphazardly into the narrative are short passages of comments from bystanders or acquaintances. At times, Oates plays a little too free and loose in her lack of tags, making it hard to tell who is talking or thinking.
Then there are the cryptic lines that could be interpreted in many different ways. Lines like: “This was not the first time. It would not be the last” (p33). The last line of a chapter, it is unclear to what it is referring. Later we see that this elusive language is typical of Marilyn’s grandmother and her mother, Gladys:
It was meant to be taken lightly, as some of Grandma Della’s warnings
and prophecies were meant to be taken – if not lightly, at least not literally –
these were hints, like winks; you were meant to feel a stab of excitement but
only that. So Norma Jeane was left to ponder what the truth was, or if in fact
there was a “truth.” (p42)
And Norma is left with a sense of bewilderment and distrust which she will never outgrow.
The changing point-of-view gives the narrative a messy feel, which was undoubtedly Oates’ intention, symbolic perhaps of the messy life of her character. The ease with which Oates moves around inside Monroe’s head exhibits her extensive research, and her sympathetic treatment reveals admiration.
Though most readers know what the end of this story will be, to raise the tension level, Oates repeatedly reminds us of Monroe’s limited time:
These invented scenes. Improvised after the fact. They would plague her
through the remainder of her life.
Nine years five months of that life.
And the minutes rapidly ticking (p311).
This technique, along with frequent name-dropping of well-known Hollywood and historical figures, propels us through the 738 pages.
Oates shows Norma Jean Baker from her tortured childhood through her metamorphosis into Marilyn Monroe and culminates in her 1962 death from an overdose of drugs at the age of thirty-six. Publicly rumored to be a nymphomaniac, Oates’ Monroe was really just a child in search of a parent. Her insane and institutionalized mother had never revealed the identity of Norma Jeane’s father but the girl never stopped needing him and hoping he would rescue her: “Because Norma didn’t have a clue who she was, and she had to fill this emptiness in her. Each time she went out, she had to invent her soul” (p348). Teachers, agents, directors and co-stars, she saw them all as father figures. She even called her husbands “Daddy.” She needed love, especially parental love, to justify her existence: “I need you to love me. I can’t bear it that you don’t love me” (p332). Failing to find that elusive devotion, her search turned to others, but always love was a disappointment: “There’s a curse on the actor, always you are seeking an audience. And when the audience sees your hunger it’s like smelling blood. Their cruelty begins” (p663). Even on her deathbed, her mind does not stray to any of the famous men with which she has been linked. Instead, she dreams once again that her mother is showing her a picture of her father.
Oates portrays Marilyn Monroe as an incredibly gifted actress, desperate for approval but programmed to self-destruct. A really provocative read and well worth the investment of time.
Deanna Northrup holds an MFA from Spalding University. Her novel Trail of Crumbs was a top 100 semi-finalist for the 2008 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and her short stories, essays, reviews, and poetry can be found in current or recent editions of Amarillo Bay, Copperfield Review, Kennesaw Review, O Tempora! Magazine, and The First Line.