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