Friday, 9 September 2011

Devouring Books: Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates

The problem with having a book blog is that I only write one post for each book, which isn't necessarily the best way to express the impact that a book has had on me. East of Eden is one such book whose impact can't really be summed up in a single post, and Blonde is another. Ostensibly a fictionalised auto/biography of Marilyn Monroe's life, this book literally had me enthralled for a week- if I wasn't reading it then I was thinking about it, wondering about the real Marilyn Monroe, and reading up about the real people behind the, at times extremely, fictionalised Hollywood that Oates has created. So yes, Blonde has had an impact on me that I can't really successfully sum up here, but I'll have a go at expressing just a tiny bit how amazing I found it.

I think it's really important to keep in mind, when reading Blonde, just how fictionalised it is. If one is expecting a clear account of every action Monroe made in her life, the people she met and the places she lived and whatnot, then they're going to be disappointed (and they should probably be reading a more conventional biography of Monroe). What you get instead, however, is so much better- a projection of what Oates thinks Monroe might have been thinking and feeling at different points in her life, and also what the people around her think and feel about her. In one way, I know this can be seen as almost exploitative, and not necessarily a fair representation of the actress, but in another, it almost doesn't matter who the subject of the novel is- it's so beautifully written, heartbreaking and joyful, and so much an overall representation of what life is like, that it could be about anyone and you would still find it as amazing as you do when it is about Monroe.

Or, I suppose, I shouldn't really be calling her Monroe, but rather Norma Jeane, as our heroine always refers to herself throughout the book, considering Marilyn to be just another character she plays, albeit her greatest. And while Marilyn is something of a one trick pony, Norma Jeane is amazing- so vulnerable and sweet, and just wanting so badly to be loved that you just want her to succeed, to find her man, and her baby, and just to be happy- something which it seems like she never is. Even as you know how the story ends (at least, I'm assuming we all know how this story ends) you're still wishing, until the very end, for her happiness, and for her to find a place in the world where she can finally be free.

Norma Jeane does, of course, encounter other people in her life, and Oates manages to draw them out as successfully as she does her main focus. It is quite clear that she has a fair bit of contempt towards Norma Jeane's three husbands, especially poor Arthur Miller, who she seems to think treats Norma Jeane as a sort of symbol rather than an actual person. I don't know if this critical attitude towards him comes from the fact that he is a fellow writer (although Oates doesn't seem to hold his work to very high esteem- she describes him as lacking poetry, which seems a tiny bit harsh) and she maybe believes that he should have been the one to save Norma Jeane, even as she is unable to save herself. She does allow him one bit of insight into the newly formed notion of fame, however, "Was this some new lurid development in the history of mankind? Public hysteria in the presence of someone known to be famous?" to which, as someone living in the twenty-first century, I can only YES, and it's much worse that you ever would have believed it could be now.

Much of the novel is devoted to men, or, more specifically, the way Norma Jeane reacts to the attention of men. Her actions seem to be classically Freudian, in that, by lacking a father, she attempts to make up for that void in her life by receiving the love she missed from him from other men. Unfortunately, the men she loves, while she calls them 'Daddy', can't provide the kind of love she really needs- they offer her sexual love, rather than affectionate, unconditional love. It's something she is willing to take, however, because "to be the object of make desire is to know I exist! The expression of the eyes. Hardening of the cock. Though worthless, you're wanted." What is really tragic about Norma Jeane's story (aside from the obvious) is that second-wave feminism hasn't really happened- there is a sense in which, if it had, Norma Jeane might have been a lot happier in herself, because she would be secure in the knowledge that she did have worth in the world by herself, and that she wouldn't have needed a man to affirm that. In spite of her attachment to men in this way, as it is said in the closing stages of the book "she was the most alone person I ever knew", and this is all part of her tragicness.

If I was going to criticise this book in any way (which I sort of don't even want to, but I feel like this has to be said) is that Oates doesn't allow Norma Jeane a single moment of breathing space to just be, and be happy. This isn't really even a criticism because, sadly, I feel like this might actually be true of the real Norma Jeane, but the fact is, since this is a fictionalised biography, it wouldn't necessarily hurt to suggest that Norma Jeane didn't hate Marilyn, but in fact embraced her as a way to reach out to the world, or that she was happy in her relationship with Miller, and didn't lose interest in him immediately after losing his baby. I can, of course, choose to believe that Norma Jeane did have some happiness in her life, since I have as might insight into her mental state as Oates does, but I fear that such a conclusion made by myself would just be wishful thinking.

But, apart from that tiny complaint that has more to do with my own wishes rather than any fault with the book, I love love loved Blonde. If I was the kind of blogger who gave stars, I'd give it fifty bazillion stars, and I would recommend it to you if you are interested in Marilyn Monroe, films, biographical writing, or if you just enjoy reading really amazing prose and you want to spend a week of your life consumed within a book (which you definitely do) then Blonde is definitely suitable for you. Read it, love it, then preserve the memory of its fabulousness within you forevermore.


  1. Fifty bazillion stars huh? That sounds like a pretty good rating. Although I actually think the fact that you said you kept thinking about this even when you weren't reading it is a good indication that this is a book worth checking out.

  2. This is definitely my favorite book from Oates! I am SO glad you liked it. You may want to also read My Sister, My Love which is a fictionalized account of the murder of Jonbenet Ramsey. I liked it almost as much as Blonde, which says a lot!

  3. @ Red- it's seriously so good! I want to make the entire world read it!

    @Lola- it is so amazing right! I have heard of My Sister, My Love, but I didn't realise it was about Jonbenet Ramsey- will have to check it out, as I intend to do with all Oatesian books :)