Prolific American author Joyce Carol Oates writes across many styles and genres and back in 2000 published what can very easily be seen as her contribution to The Great American Novel. “Great” in that it comes in at 939 pages in the paperback edition and with its concerns of a woman conquering and then being destroyed by that most American of institutions the Hollywood film industry it surely fulfils all the criteria for consideration of being up there amongst the ultimate American epic. For this is the fictionalised story of Marilyn Monroe.
But, perhaps word didn’t get round because this remained under the radar for me really until I was casting around for other fictional biographies having enjoyed my current Book of The Year the Truman Capote led “Swan Song” by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott. I’ve never read Joyce Carol Oates but know that with a writing career spanning well over 50 years and 58 novels that she is one of America’s most significant living writers. “Blonde” was shortlisted for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction but it was beaten by another “Great American Novel” consideration “The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay” by Michael Chabon which breezed into my end of year Top 3 when I read it in 2006.
On paper I was pretty sure I was going to love “Blonde”. Fiction featuring real life characters is something I do have a predilection for . Hollywood always has an appeal in my non-fiction choices (less so with fiction) and the air of tragic glamour which would inevitably permeate this novel was always going to get my attention. I think I was anticipating a kind of literary Jackie Collins! I was, however, daunted by the length. Anything over 600 pages brings me out in a sweat and I knew it would mean giving over at least a couple of weeks to this one work (it took me 19 days to read but I have been busy and struggling to allocate as much time to reading as I wanted).
First things first, this is fiction. I don’t know enough about the life of Marilyn Monroe to ascertain just how much was from the mind of Joyce Carol Oates but it has certainly whetted my appetite for a biography but it would need to be extremely thorough and well-written to match this and I’m not sure that such a work even exists. Oates has an interesting (if inconsistent) way of distancing us from the central character. Men that we do know that she married such as Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller are just referred to as the Ex-Athlete and The Playwright with her adopting the role of the Blond Actress for the duration of their relationship. However, with a long-lasting and somewhat scandalous menage a trois set up with the sons of Charlie Chaplin and Edward G Robinson names are revealed . Some characters are referred to by a single letter, C is Tony Curtis (who here dislikes Marilyn) W is Billy Wilder and H John Huston who both had the (mis?) fortune of directing Monroe in more than one of her movies. I was a little perturbed by this haphazard naming (or not) but it does give the effect of making the reader a spectator to the action rather than feeling part of it, which seeing the theme is the mirage of Hollywood may very well be appropriate.
One aspect which I certainly appreciated was how much the actress tried to put between herself, Norma Jeane and the studio’s creation. I don’t think this was anything I’d really considered before. Norma Jeane was not Marilyn but fame dictated that Marilyn take over in almost a parasitical way which certainly doomed the host.
Of course, the character of MM is always going to draw in the reader just as she drew in a generation of movie-goers. Oates certainly keeps us on our toes with a range of narrative styles and techniques which considering the length of this novel is no bad idea. At times I did feel frustrated and challenged but I also loved it and applaud it as a major achievement and probably one of the best fictional deconstructions of “celebrity” I have read.
Blonde was published in 2000. I read the Fourth Estate paperback edition.