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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on April 19, 2000. All rights reserved.
Blonde in a Bottle, Distilled
It was just over a year ago that Princeton audiences
first heard the dark-eyed, dark-haired, Joyce Carol Oates read from
her novel in progress, "Blonde." At a 1999 celebratory reading
by more than a dozen Princeton University authors in honor of the
60th anniversary of its creative writing program, set in the
spectacular omed, stone and oak Richardson Auditorium, Oates conjured up the
presence of Norma Jeane Baker, Hollywood’s iconic "dumb
blonde," who died in 1962 at age 36.
Willowy-thin at age 60, wearing a dark pantsuit topped by a velvet
jacket, Oates read a passage for the attentive audience that describes
a chaotic, windswept helicopter ride that carried the newly-minted
star, newly married to her "Ex-Athlete," Joe DiMaggio, over
a U.S. military camp in South Korea.
Like many of the novel’s vignettes, the narrator is an insider, in
this case an anonymous member of the helicopter flight crew. As she
reads the excerpt in her own inimitable, flat "upstate" accent
that is a product of her own childhood near Lockport, New York, Oates
still manages to quote "Marilyn" in the breathy, childlike
voice so many of us associate with the mythic star and sex symbol:
up onto roofs and water tanks and some of them fall and break bones,
the poor saps. One guy out of the infirmary slips and falls in the
stampede and is trampled. It’s a mob scene. Feeding time in the zoo,
apes and monkeys. M.P.s have to beat the most reckless guys back from
the landing strip.
The copter lands, and there’s Marilyn Monroe climbing out flanked
by us guys, looking like we’d been electric shocked and loved it.
Marilyn’s got frostbite-white cheeks and nose and those big bright
glassy blue eyes and long lashes and her hair’s in wild clumps, that
hair of a color we’d never seen before except in movies and you
think it’s real, but it is, and she’s got tears in her eyes crying
Oh! oh! this is the h-happiest day of my life and if we hadn’t
stopped her she’d have run right out and grabbed guys’ hands where
they were reaching for her, she’d have hugged and kissed them like
she’s everybody’s sweetheart from back home. The mob would’ve torn
her limb from limb loving her . . ."
Joyce Carol Oates’ newest and, at over 700 printed
longest novel, "Blonde," has now been published by the Ecco
Press/HarperCollins Publishers. Oates has a public book signing for
"Blonde" on Monday, April 24, at 7 p.m. at Barnes & Noble
in MarketFair on Route 1 South.
Throughout her prodigious and prolific writing career, Oates has
known as an avid observer of the American psyche, teasing away layers
of disguise from a host of characters both admirable and heinous.
In her author’s note at the start of this latest epic, she writes
that "`Blonde’ is a radically distilled `life’ in the form of
fiction," one in which she frequently chooses a single instance
— be it a foster home, a lover, or an abortion — to stand
for the many. A quotation from Stanislavski’s classic, "An Actor
Prepares," in which he describes the protective shell that swathes
the solitary actor, is Oates’ indication that an actor’s psyche has
From the well-known and hardly-known events in the life of the
Marilyn Monroe, Oates has set herself the task of imagining the inner
life of Norma Jeane Baker, a young woman she depicts as propelled
by chance, degraded by men’s desires, and undone by her own perpetual
hunger for love. The author tells much of her story in words she
might have belonged to Norma Jeane.
Since 1978, Oates and her husband, Raymond J. Smith, have lived in
Princeton, where she is a professor in the creative writing program.
She and her husband also edit and publish the Ontario Review, a
literary magazine they founded in Ontario, Canada.
In an interview by her biographer Greg Johnson, originally published
in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (March 12, 2000), and posted on
Randy Souther’s website, "Celestial Timepiece, A Joyce Carol Oates
Home Page" (storm.usfca.edu/~southerr/jco.html), Oates
characterizes her new fiction inspired by fact as "a posthumous
narration by the subject." She describes how a photograph of
"Marilyn" before there ever was a "Marilyn" — of
the 17-year-old Norma Jeane Baker — galvanized her curiosity about
the inner life of this beatified and abused American icon.
"With her longish dark curly hair, artificial flowers on her head,
locket around her neck, she looked nothing like the iconic `Marilyn
Monroe,’" Oates tells Johnson. "I felt an immediate sense
of something like recognition; this young, hopefully smiling girl,
so very American, reminded me powerfully of girls of my childhood,
some of them from broken homes. For days I felt an almost rapturous
sense of excitement, that I might give life to this lost, lone girl,
whom the iconic consumer-product `Marilyn Monroe’ would soon overwhelm
Oates meticulously recreates the times and places of Norma Jeane’s
short, tragic life: a fractured childhood spent on the fringes of
the film industry with a mentally unstable mother, then in an
orphanage, and ultimately in and out of foster homes; her first
marriage at age 16, pressed on her by a foster parent; a precarious
rise through the exploitative Hollywood studio system; and her much
publicized marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller; the attempts
to be a serious actress; the countless trysts, including an affair
with President Kennedy. The suggestion of a longstanding menage a
trois with Charlie Chaplin Jr. and Edward G. Robinson Jr. plays a
recurrent role in this long story of a short life.
The narrative, partly told in Marilyn’s own breathless voice, is
before the reader with psychological complexity and graphic intensity.
It comprises a variety of sources, both real and imagined, from the
Stanislavski text to poetry Norma Jeane Baker might have written
The author has chosen to give the supporting characters fairytale
shorthand names — the Dark Prince, the Fair Princess, the Lover,
the Kiss — a device intended to imbue the story with an
appropriately mythic resonance. DiMaggio and Miller appear in the text
simply as "the Ex-Athlete" and "the Playwright."
Oates has been widely acclaimed for such novels as,
"Wonderland," the first to bring her national recognition,
as well as "A Garden of Earthly Delight," "Expensive
People," and "them," for which she won the 1969 National
Book Award. She is also the author of two books of poetry,
"Anonymous Sins" and "Love and Its Derangements," and
a volume of essays, "The Edge of Impossibility: Tragic Forms in
Literature." More recently, she has extended her command of genres
to plays, several of which have been produced, including, "The
Sweet Enemy" and "Sunday Dinner," and "The
Perfectionist," the latter produced at McCarter by Emily Mann. Her
first opera, "Black Water," based on her 1992 novel about
Chappaquiddick, was professionally produced in 1998.
Before "Blonde," Oates’ most recent novels included "We
Were the Mulvaneys" and "My Heart Laid Bare," both of
which could rightly be described as American epics. Yet even within
her own prodigious output, "Blonde" may be destined to become
the most controversial of Oates’ career.
Writing in the daily New York Times, critic Michiko Kakutani was not
alone in her haste to condemn Oates and her new novel as "just
the latest effort to exploit the tragedy and fame of Marilyn
"How shamelessly Ms. Oates is using the life of Marilyn Monroe
as a substitute for inventing an original story, how shamelessly she
is trying to cash in on her subject’s status as a legend," writes
Kakutani, who broadly condemns "the smarmy tone of the second
half of this book."
Somewhat mitigating such ire was Laura Miller’s review that appeared
two days later as the cover piece in the New York Times Book Review
(April 2). Miller describes "Blonde" as "fat, messy and
fierce. It’s part Gothic, part kaleidoscopic novel of ideas, part
lurid celebrity potboiler, and it is seldom less than engrossing."
Writing in the Wall Street Journal the following week, David Futrelle
describes "Blonde" as a "brilliant but bleak
not-quite-biography," adding that Oates offers "a portrait of
Hollywood as terrifyingly hallucinatory as Nathanael West’s `The Day
of the Locust.’"
A visit to the readers’ comments pages of any of the relevant websites
and online book vendors reveals a comparable pitched battle in
progress between Oates’ myriad admiring fans and perennial detractors
who, this time around, have risen in defense of their own heightened
sense of the character "Marilyn Monroe," her life, and times.
As an author who loves to write about characters who are driven by
urgent forces outside their own control, Oates is unapologetic in
characterizing her own writing practice as something of an obsession.
In fact, the novel inspired by the photograph of 17-year-old Norma
Jeane Baker was originally intended as a 175-page novella.
"I think, looking back upon the experience, that it is one I would
not wish to relive," Oates tells Greg Johnson. "In
psychoanalytic terms — though we can’t of course `analyze’
ourselves — I believe I was trying to give life to Norma Jeane
Baker, and to keep her living, in a very obsessive way, because she
came to represent certain `life elements’ in my own experience and, I
hope, in the life of America. A young girl, born into poverty, cast
off by her father and eventually by her mother, who, as in a fairy
tale, becomes an iconic `Fair Princess’ and is posthumously celebrated
as `The Sex Symbol of the 20th Century,’ making millions of dollars
for other people — it’s just too sad, too ironic."
— Nicole Plett
1 South, 609-897-9250. An author’s book signing and discussion of
"Blonde. A Novel." Monday, April 24, 7 p.m.
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