A few years ago, I was talking to Joyce Carol Oates, who teaches Creative Writing at Princeton University, about a poem she had written describing a deer in her garden. ‘Actually,’ she told me, ‘there were five deer; but art must simplify.’ I recalled this wry remark when reading Blonde, her twenty-fourth novel, which is based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. At 738 pages, it is a lavish, operatic narrative, which sees Monroe’s story as both an American and a female tragedy. From Norman Mailer to Elton John, most of the writers and biographers who have mythologised Marilyn Monroe as ‘goddess’ or ‘legend’ have been men. Oates’s version is noteworthy first of all because she has tackled the subject of Monroe’s life and legend from a feminist perspective.
But even more significantly, in an era when much women’s fiction tends to be domestic, psychological, and personal, the epic scope and ambition of this novel demands attention. Oates has been fearless in taking on a subject that crisscrossed almost every important strand of mid-twentieth-century American culture – sports, religion, literature, theatre, politics, and, of course, the Hollywood dream machine. Apart from her, only Don DeLillo, among today’s American novelists, would be able to handle such a huge cast of imagined and real characters, among them Darryl Zanuck, Van Johnson, Richard Widmark, Marlon Brando, John Huston, Joe DiMaggio, Billy Wilder, Tony Curtis, Arthur Miller, Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift, and JFK; or weave in such a complex background of political and historical events. This is truly the Balzacian novel towards which Oates has been striving throughout her career.
Yet, despite the book’s length and daring, the work of condensation, stylisation and, to use her word, ‘distillation’ has clearly been needed in setting this vast, messy story in an aesthetic context. In an author’s note, Oates explains that ‘in place of numerous foster homes in which the child Norma Jean lived, 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 select, symbolic few.
Structurally, the novel is designed to mirror Shakespearian tragedy, being divided into five parts, or acts, dedicated to the Shakespearian critic Michael Goldman (and to his wife Eleanor Bergstein, a Hollywood film-writer and producer), and framed throughout by epigraphs on acting from Stanislavsky and others. Oates asks what it means to be an actress in the contexts of Hollywood and The Studio. For Norma Jean Baker, she suggests, Stardom, the construction of the platinum blonde Marilyn, was a form of ‘animal manufacture, like breeding’. At the same time, Monroe’s private mythology, the family romance of an abused and abandoned child, took on the falsity of film. Oates’s Norma Jean imagines herself as the foundling whose great-grandmother might have been Mary Baker Eddy, whose godmother was Norma Shearer, whose father might be Valentino.
Oates also frames her narrative as an epic fairy tale, the story of the Fair Princess and the Dark Prince. ‘In every decade,’ she writes, ‘ there must be a Fair Princess exalted above the rest and the role demanded not just extraordinary physical gifts but an accompanying genius.’ In a recent essay on the fairy tale, Oates has pointed out that even the Princess pays a heavy price for her celebrity: ‘to be a heroine in even a limited sense requires extreme youth and extreme physical beauty; it would not be sufficient to be merely beautiful, one must be “the greatest beauty in the kingdom”, and thus vulnerable to “the homicidal envy of older women”, and the rivalry of younger ones.’
Thus the Princess is also the Doomed Maiden, and, like DeLillo in Underworld or Libra, Oates sees Monroe as the victim of a massive, murderous conspiracy, but here a male conspiracy to exploit and destroy female innocence. So the Blonde’s lush sexuality carries within it elements of decay, and provokes an allegedly male disgust with what is soiled, sour, rancid, bloody, or scarred. At the same time, Oates’s intellectual seriousness and tragic sensibility are combined with a strong sensuality, and with a lyric sense of the beauty of male as well as female bodies lifted to iconic significance by the screen. ‘B’, the young Brando, for example, has ‘a beautifully sculpted male body with distinct chest muscles, perfectly shaped male breasts and nipples like miniature grapes’. As the Dark Prince of legend, he too pays for fame.
In the Melvillian American tradition she admires, Oates believes that a mighty book requires a mighty theme. Here she has found that theme, and, despite the radical simplification of art, has produced a mighty – and a mesmerizing – book.