Oates on Marilyn: Men, drugs, tragedy


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

Joyce Carol Oates has fashioned from the actual, tumultuous life of Marilyn Monroe a bold, perverse, disquieting adult fairy tale, and I defy anyone who claims an unturned page. Like a fairy story, this work is composed of vivid visual scenes with scanty connectives and rationalizations -- why does a pinprick at baptism cause the Sleeping Beauty to slumber through the ages? How can Cinderella rise from the deprived domesticity of her ashes? Were Hansel and Gretel merely dysfunctional adolescents? But the childhood miseries of Norma Jean Baker (Monroe's previous legal name) had no happy ending.

She was born and brought up in Hollywood, "the city of sand," "wailing" winds, and a "firestorm rolling down like the wrath of Jehovah." In a significant novelistic invention of Joyce Carol Oates, Monroe's mother, Gladys Mortensen, attempted to murder the daughter before being confined to a mental institution for the rest of her days.

But Marilyn Monroe maintained a Candide-like trusting nature, continuing to woo this witch parent whose former beauty hung about her person like tattered, filthy rags. Norma Jeane's father was unknown, but Gladys Mortensen taunts her with photographs of famous male movie stars, each proclaimed to be the progenitor she never saw: "The Dark Prince" of her imaginings.

During her adolescence in an orphan asylum, the search continued. A Christmas charity event became an epiphany, "Norma Jean's turn came last to receive a gift from the 'Dark Prince' (her father?) ... who close up looked older -- before she knew it he had seized her hand and lofted her on the platform beside him: "Merry Christmas, little girl -- then came the camera, flash, flash --"

The future "Fair Princess" was created by the studios, ruled by film moguls and their staffs of twisted dwarfs, and it was they who also destroyed her. Her success was accompanied by drugs and men, men, men.

"Am I worthy of love?" -- this haunted her. At 17, a jealous foster mother chose the young husband, an embalmer's assistant who abandoned her after returning from World War II. She missed him, briefly, but her chief memory of the union was the skull ("Hirohito") that graced the mantel of her first home. Three marriages were failures.

She was renown, herself, at the time of her second marriage to the "Ex-Athlete," followed by the "Playwright," the last husband, both much older than Monroe, but they did not prove to be "Daddies" after all. Her most satisfying relationship seemed to be a threesome with Cass Chaplin and Eddy G., the spurned sons of famous film star fathers. Between these youthful homosexuals, Marilyn Monroe nestled like a platinum-haired infant in a nest of sleek serpents.

At the advent of the "Playwright," a change of style creeps over the book. The author's quirky imagination is smothered by familiar gossip, resembling yellow journalism covering the private life of the ill-assorted couple climaxed by details of a late miscarriage -- intentional or accidental?

In the two brief appearances of "Mr. President," the novel verges on pornography. Is it possible that the reader has traveled so many pages into a land of tragic, grotesque wonders only to be confronted at the end by a crude soapbox tirade against the sordid innocence of American iconic worship of stars of every kind? It is a disappointment that Joyce Carol Oates has tarnished the brilliance of her book for the sake of a message of reprimand, no matter how needed it may be.

Dorothea Straus has written seven books, and her work has been published in Yale Review, Raritan, Partisan Review, Fiction, Commentary, Confrontation, Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. She lives in New York City.

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