I must confess, it was the stunning cover of the 4th Estates paperback that made me read Joyce Carol Oates’ brilliant fictional biography of Marilyn Monroe. Of course, when a book’s subject is one of the most famously photogenic women of the twentieth century, it has no excuse for looking anything but flawless. The real question is whether the seemingly effortless combination of ease, enthusiasm and manufactured, stylised beauty is fittingly matched by the 700 plus page narrative within.
Beginning with a prologue set in 1962, the novel opens with the title ‘Special Delivery’ and a thuddingly poetic evocation of of a modern Grim Reaper: ‘There came Death hurtling along the Boulevard in waning Sepia light.‘ It’s an image that will reappear at the end of the book, after sections on ‘The Child’, ‘The Girl’, ‘The Woman’, and ‘Marilyn’. It’s a stylised, self-conscious piece of writing, both a confident opening, but also a strangely obtuse one; why start a book about Marilyn without showing her?
Oates is unambiguous in classifying this biography as fiction, a decision that allows uninhibited creation of dialogue, memories and even characters, all of whom contribute towards our understanding of her protagonist and the world she both dominates and is subjugated by. This world is bleak. Men in power are abusive and violent, the world of Hollywood exploitative and unforgiving. Shifting viewpoints show us the triumph of Marilyn Monroe, but also the human cost of the systems in which she lives. This is not the book for those searching for a factual account of a celebrity’s life, but it is an incredibly stylish and empathetic presentation of Hollywood from the 1930s to the 1960s and the fantasies it peddles. Oates makes the convincing case that Marilyn was only ever a part, not a person. She was someone Norma Jeane could play and, through or despite her, could also channel other fictional characters, from the innocent Angela Finlay in ‘The Asphalt Jungle’ to the destructive Nell Forbes in ‘Don’t Bother to Knock’ to the murderous and manipulative Rose Loomis in ‘Niagra.’ Chapters begin with quotes from Stanislavski, or from Norma Jeane’s invented library of fictional texts (including the utterly convincing The Paradox of Acting‘ and ‘The Actor’s Handbook and the Actor’s Life‘), seamlessly weaving the dramatic business of merging fact and fiction into the very fabric of the novel.
And this is why I fell in love with ‘Blonde.’ Oates writes fluidly and fluently about her illusive subject and builds the argument for her unknowability as meticulously as the team of artists, executives, lovers and associates depicted build their own fictional Marilyn Monroes. The woman behind the face (which, we’re told, takes hours and expertise to construct) is also a creator, but this role is complicated by the destructive relationship between Norma Jeane and the alter ego she cannot always control.
The author’s note at the start of my edition contains a list of factual biographies recommended for those who want to go beyond the fiction. For me, the fantasy and fiction of ‘Blonde’ more than suffices, and I’m thrilled to have this piece of beauty on my bookshelf; a book that meets the high expectations its own beauty creates.