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In which Netty hangs out with a Blonde called Norma Jeane …

March 28, 2011

I’m in this book club, right? And every couple of months a catalogue is mailed out to me, with books advertised slightly cheaper than I’d fork out for at my local bookstore (yeah, I know what you’re thinking – I still buy books at a bookstore? How old-school is that? Well, I’ve got one word for you, buddy – harrumph …) Anyways, the catalogue lobs in the mailbox the other day; I’m leafing through the new releases when I spy, somewhat pertinently – all things considering – a new biography on … Marilyn Monroe. Promising new facts, new revelations, new scandals. Uh, I think to myself, hasn’t the woman been dead for, like, 50 years now? (Next year, peoples – August 3, to be precise.)

Regular readers of this blog – all four or five of you – will know that this year, as an appendage to our usual 12 books a year, Andy and I are revisiting the authors we have most enjoyed from the previous three years of Andy and Netty’s Reading Challenge. First cab off the rank is Joyce Carol Oates. Andy opened the batting with Rape: A Love Story back in January; I had my heart set on tackling the behemoth that is Blonde – Oates’ reimagining of the interior life of this extraordinary American actress and legendary sex symbol – and struck a deal with my blogging partner whereby I could do so in timely fashion. Hence why you’re reading this Oates blog in March rather than February. (Next month I’ll be chiming in on Bukowski, then it’s back to business as usual.)

I admit that my knowledge of Monroe pertains to the mere skeleton of her life – her early years spent in an orphanage and foster homes; a handful of her best-known movies; her three husbands and lovers, both actual and rumoured; her drug use; her death, still shrouded in mystery to this day. Oates takes this skeleton and puts flesh on its bones, presenting Norma Jeane’s story mainly from her perspective, with sidebars and observations from others scattered throughout her short life (she died at the age of 36). The author is at pains to point out in the introduction that despite some adherence to the facts, Blonde should be considered a work of fiction – “faction”, perhaps. What Oates has ultimately achieved is an ambitious, sprawling, beautifully written epic (738 dense pages) that, for all the many, many biographies and tell-alls, still comes together surprisingly well as a work of fiction – particularly in the you-couldn’t-make-this-stuff-up department.

However, what I found the most maddening thing about Blonde was that pretty much the whole time I was reading it, I was wondering, did this actually happen, did that actually happen? Perhaps the novel should be approached solely as a work of fiction, but I find it near-impossible to believe that any reader could come to it – or would, in fact, come to it – without any knowledge of the myth of Monroe. Perhaps the reader can put aside his/her knowledge or preconceptions – but good luck with doing that. Seriously, can anyone read about Gentlemen Prefer Blondes without the Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend sequence running through their heads? Ditto the (in)famous picture of Monroe in a white halterneck frock astride a New York subway grating; or her breathy rendition of Happy Birthday at a 1960s Democrat fundraiser before her lover, US president John F. Kennedy?

But no matter how much within these pages is truth or speculation, there is no doubt Oates has done her homework. But where Blonde works its magic is inside Norma Jeane’s head, and from the viewpoints of those people on the outside looking in. The dichotomy of how she actually was versus how she appeared to those around her, no matter how loosely or intimately involved with her, to the public, her fans, her critics, her detractors. Oates gives her protagonist a striking voice – most notably Norma Jeane’s phrasing of statements as questions, mostly in deference to the men to whom she is speaking at any given time. As in Monroe’s plethora of biographies, much is made of her acting ability – whether she was actually acting, or just playing versions of herself – both on and off the screen. This question takes on increased gravitas as the book unfolds and the almost-bipolar Norma Jeane/Marilyn becomes increasingly drug-addled, her always-shaky grasp on reality receding further and further into the distance.

Blonde is divided into five sections – the Child, the Girl, the Woman, “Marilyn” and the After Life (interestingly enough, this section starts four years before Monroe actually dies). It traces the young Norma Jeane’s early years from abandoned child (in the book, her mentally unstable mother Gladys Mortensen tries to drown the nine-year-old, then kill herself) to orphanage-dweller to foster child. She is married off at the tender age of 16 by her paranoid foster mother Elsie Pirig (the real Norma Jeane had many foster homes; the Pirigs are fictional) to local boy Bucky Glazer, based on Monroe’s real-life husband James Dougherty. Glazer joins the Marines and is shipped out to do his bit in World War II; meanwhile Norma Jeane, working on an aircraft assembly line, is discovered by photographer Otto Ose (a fictional snapper who, in this book, takes the real-life naked shots that eventually end up in a calendar and threaten her then-burgeoning acting career).

After a number of professional fits and starts – a studio contract that is signed, dropped, then renewed, a humiliating “casting-couch” session with studio head Mr Z, a couple of small movie roles that virtually end up on the cutting-room floor – agent I.E. Shinn (fictional) takes advantage of a favour to ensure his client, now renamed Marilyn Monroe at the behest of The Studio, wangles an audition for the part of Angela in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle. At the same time, Norma Jeane starts an affair with Charlie (Chas) Chaplin Jr ( I can find no reference to this in Monroe’s biographical details), which morphs into a threesome arrangement (“the Gemini”) with Chas’s buddy Edward (Eddy) G. Robinson Jr (ditto) and then ends abruptly after she aborts their baby. Meanwhile, Monroe’s star is on the rise, making its trajectory through roles in Don’t Bother To Knock, Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Seven Year Itch, Bus Stop, The Prince and the Showgirl, Some Like It Hot and The Misfits (her last screen appearance).

Meanwhile, the Blonde Actress meets and marries The Ex-Athlete (based on Joe DiMaggio), then the Playwright (Arthur Miller), whose child she (purposely?) miscarries. There are drug overdoses – both intentional and accidental – and suicide attempts (including attempted deaths by drowning in the ocean on both US coasts). There are affairs galore – some real, some rumoured, some imagined – Monroe’s drug use (aided and abetted by The Studio) escalates alarmingly, while her mental state rapidly deteriorates. A brief, ultimately tawdry fling with the President (based on JFK) sets her on the course to her eventual death, which Oates presents as a murder and the direct result of her involvement with Kennedy.

At the end of the day, you don’t need to be a fan of Monroe’s to enjoy Blonde – you don’t even need to know anything about her (in fact, as I’ve said, it’s probably preferable if you don’t). But Oates’ 2001 opus is a masterful work, made all the more painful and poignant by the fact that you know how the story ends before you read the first page. But the fact that you do does not lessen Blonde’s power one iota – and therein lies its ultimate accomplishment.

As for that book club catalogue I received earlier this month, I added that new Monroe bio to my order form. But I suspect that no matter how much anyone reads about Norma Jeane, we’ll be no closer to knowing the true story, the real story. And perhaps that is the major part of her appeal – and the secret to how she can sustain enormous public interest so many years after her death.

PS: Even if Marilyn’s story doesn’t interest you, read something else by Joyce Carol Oates – and with something approaching 50 novels to her credit, there’s plenty out there. She’s all sorts of awesome. As a man in a hat once said, do yourself a favour.

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