Joyce Carol Loves Norma Jean: A Brilliant, Messy Embrace

Blonde , by Joyce Carol Oates. Harper Collins, 738 pages, $27.50.

Joyce Carol Oates brims with testosterone, and her new book is aggressive and daring. She wants us to re-see a mythic character not through the camera’s eyes but through human eyes. She means to show us how a squalid male culture industry distorted our understanding of Marilyn Monroe. She means to replace the distorted picture with an artist’s understanding of Marilyn as a desperate girl who herself became an artist.

And she does it. Joyce Carol loves Norma Jeane (and adds an E to her name) and has somehow managed to meld her skinny, dark, curly, ivory-tower, East Coast-woman soul with Marilyn’s busty, bleached, trampy, California-girl soul. She has imagined Monroe’s inner life, from childhood to death at 36, in 1962, and Marilyn will never be the same: an intelligent girl-woman with a distant view of her own body and an indifference to sex, a father-searcher who climbs the ranks of men using her body even as they are using it, a whore-celebrity looking to reinvent herself as she’s being eaten alive.

Blonde is out of control, too, but that may be the price of admission. Ms. Oates offers a swaggering rationalization: “What is ‘technique’ but the absence of passion?” she writes, in the voice of Marilyn’s third husband, who is called the Playwright (Arthur Miller).

I don’t think I’ve ever read such a messy and brilliant book. The story often sags, and there are a hundred climaxes. Meanwhile Ms. Oates commits countless literary offenses. Here’s a partial list:

Point of view . First-person narrators pop up out of nowhere, sometimes halfway through a paragraph. A surfer. A reporter. Even Marilyn, speaking from the grave.

Obscurity . Ms. Oates’ names are harder to keep track of than Dostoyevsky’s: Z, W, O, the Prince, the Dark Prince (Marlon Brando), the Playwright, the former Athlete and so on.

License . An answering machine in 1932, a video camera in 1954.

Afterthought . Strands of plot are left hanging, as though forgotten, and then resolved in a parenthesis when the author remembers.

Hysteria . “Miss Monroe, you forgot this,” a bathroom attendant says, handing Marilyn an aborted fetus, weeks after an abortion.

Pretense . A cock “engorged with urine”; “citizens of the City of Sand” for Los Angelenos.

Throw in some cockamamie conspiracy theorizing–it’s amazing that an author can triumph over such problems. But Ms. Oates does, with scenes of vast emotional and visual power, like Brando’s visit to Monroe’s Greenwich Village sublet. Brando has had so many women he’s indifferent to Monroe, and so adored he wears filthy clothes. He passes out in her bathtub, and Monroe wipes the vomit off him when she lifts him out. Later he sends her flowers: “Angel, I hope if only one of us makes it, it’s you.”

The author is a jealous lover. When she hates her rival, like Jack Kennedy or Joe DiMaggio, the novel gets cartoonish–DiMaggio getting the same feeling from hitting Marilyn as from hitting a home run. But when she has some sympathy for the man, her story achieves great heights.

Such as the section dealing with Monroe’s first true lovers, the bisexual sons of Charlie Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson.

“‘Don’t be nice to us,’ Cass warned. Eddy agreed vehemently. ‘Yeah! like feeding a cobra. I’d use a 10-foot stick on me myself.’ Norma Jeane pointed out, ‘But at least you two have fathers. You know who you are .’ ‘That’s exactly the trouble,’ Cass said irritably. ‘We knew who we were before we were born.’ Eddy G said, ‘Cass and me, it’s a double curse–we’re juniors. Of men who never wanted us born.'”

Better yet are the Arthur Miller chapters. Ms. Oates’ insights are cruel and terrifying. The Playwright, middle-aged, storklike, “eyes like frayed socks,” is so egotistical he dismisses all the trampy stories about Marilyn as unbelievable because he connects with her serious side. Still, he holds his verbalness and Jewishness over Marilyn: “When he entered a room, words flew to him like magnetic filings to a magnet. Norma Jeane, faltering and stammering, hadn’t a chance.”

Ms. Oates gets back at him. She makes Mr. Miller out to be status-conscious–”How many actresses, how many actors, have been on Time ‘s cover?” he marvels–and she isn’t too crazy about his work, either: “In his doggedly crafted plays there were no … Chekhovian flashes, for the Playwright’s imagination was literal, at times clumsy.”

The Miller stuff is so good because Ms. Oates knows writers, knows Jews, knows intellect, performance, sex. When she knows her stuff, she seems to move among us like a fierce ungendered god.

On identity: “When you believe you are acting, you will suddenly discover your truest self.”

On art: “A merely talented actor can play any role. A true actor can play only what he apprehends as Truth.”

On love: “To love a man is not to know him but rather to not-know him.”

Having transcended gender, the author wills this transcendence on her subject. From time to time Marilyn produces a kind of cock from her crotch, a “curious, poking-out sexual organ.” No wonder the sex in this book isn’t very sexy. This isn’t Norman Mailer’s Marilyn, who froths with “the sugar of sex.” The goings on here are violent, clinical. Marilyn imagines a slash between her legs. Kennedy’s cock is a “slug.” There’s anal rape–”a beak plunging in. In, in as far in as it will go.” Ooh.

Happily, the gruesomeness ends when Ms. Oates is working above the waist: “Nipples big as eyes,” “her breasts ached with a ghostly milk-to-be-sucked,” “swelling breasts nearly spilled out,” “big bountiful breasts,” “breasts jutting out as if about to burst with milk.”

Jeez Louise–the author is a tit man. Even Brando gets ogled, his “nipples like miniature grapes.”

If the author’s eye is ungendered, her ideology is straight-up feminist. Marilyn is used as a whore is used, up the ladder of power, till she’s raped in the Presidential Suite of the “C Hotel” on Fifth Avenue, all but under the nose of a contemptuous Jack Kennedy.

Did that really happen? This book invites a rumble over the use of facts. Ms. Oates calls her novel a “radically distilled ‘life'” (a misrepresentation–Ms. Oates can’t distill), and it’s seldom clear whether what she’s telling us is something she imagined or something that happened. The author’s curt response to such concerns–”Biographical facts regarding Marilyn Monroe should be sought not in Blonde , which is not intended as a historic document, but in biographies of the subject”–is a dodge.

We know these characters, and Ms. Oates means to exploit our knowing. (Maybe some legal froufrou surrounding Mr. Miller would explain why he only appears as “the Playwright.”) Is it true that Marilyn never saw her father? Did Charlie Chaplin Jr. really introduce her to masturbation? Did DiMaggio beat her? Is there a C.I.A. dossier that states that she slept with Lassie? This bothers me.

Which is a sure sign that Ms. Oates has hit another one of her targets. This vengeful history is about the majesty of imagination. Marilyn’s self-imaginings were cruelly curtailed. Comes now the artist to accord Marilyn her rightful status, as artist. The artist uses flesh and fact, the artist transcends them.