Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates

I can’t say why I chose to pick this dusty, dog-eared second-hand book off the shelf when I did, one clear morning at a café in the New South Wales southern highlands. I’d never previously had any interest in its principle subject: the tragic, beautiful Marilyn Monroe. Something in the news or popular media may have spiked my interest, or the book may have simply beckoned more interest than it’s shelved neighbours.

Prior to even the book’s dedication page comes a disclaimer from Oates herself that “Blonde should be read solely as a work of fiction, not as a biography of Marilyn Monroe.” So it is testament to Oates’ writing that I turned the final page feeling as though I’d intimately known the woman, and was more intrigued to learn about her life and work than I imagine any factual biography could have left me.

Oates is obviously a feminist writer, and she delved into scenes and aspects of Marilyn’s life that she clearly can’t have known: her first menstrual period, her various sexual encounters – desires, even – her dreams and nightmares about pregnancy, her fears and countless self-doubts. And yet are those accounts any less true as a result? Oates was clearly well-read on the known facts of Marilyn’s life story, which she pieced together without sacrificing the intimacies of her humanity – a humanity which author and subject and reader alike share and which makes this book all the truer, if strictly fictional.

While written in the third person, it feels almost as though Oates’ decision to do so was to suggest a confused, troubled Marilyn speaking of herself in that manner – perplexed by her constructed identity: Norma Jeane; Marilyn; She; Her. And then there’s the sections separating the book’s chapters: The Child; The Girl; The Woman; Marilyn; (and lastly, The Afterlife).

This book will leave you feeling not just like you know Marilyn, but that in many ways you are her. It also takes a clear side on the controversy of her death, and again, while Oates can’t have known whose (if any) hand really took Marilyn’s life, the truth of her demise and the reasons for it almost render that one detail inconsequential, at least in Oates’ expression of it. Read it, and see if you agree.


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