From the Pulitzer Prize Jury
“‘Blonde’ is audacious, excessive, unstintingly serious and even severe in what its intellectual and narrative curiosity force upon the reader. Risking self-defeat, this ‘radically distilled’ life of Marilyn Monroe seeks to deliver a grander vision of what is right and wrong in human conduct and motive. In its variety of fictive effects and narrative voices, its muscularity (a willingness to forego finesse and delicacy when large strokes and brazenness are called for), ‘Blonde’ renders history all but irrelevant in the face of the novel’s outlandish authority. Marilyn Monroe, the actress, is simply (though not merely) the impetus for ‘Blonde.’ And if Oates’s novel eventually sheds light on Monroe’s life, it does so not as a subtext to history, but because of its warrant as a galvanizing act of imagination. ‘Blonde’ deepens our sympathies for ourselves (at a cost), it sharpens our distaste for venality, it broadens our view of what’s relevant to moral judgement, and it snares us with our own indecencies.” —Pulitzer Prize Jury
“A lush-bodied girl in the prime of her physical beauty. In an ivory georgette crepe sundress with a halter top that gathers her breasts up in soft undulating folds of the fabric. She’s standing with bare legs apart on a New York subway grating. Her blond head is thrown rapturously back as an updraft lifts her full, flaring skirt, exposing white cotton panties. White cotton! The ivory-crepe sundress is floating and filmy as magic. The dress is magic. Without the dress the girl would be female meat, raw and exposed.”
She was an all-American girl who became a legend of unparalleled stature. She inspired the adoration of millions, and her life has beguiled generations of fans and fellow artists. The story of Norma Jeane Baker—beter known by her studio name “Marilyn Monroe”—has been dissected for more than three decades, but never has it been captured in a narrative as breathtaking and transforming as Blonde.
In her most ambitious work to date, Joyce Carol Oates, one of America’s most distinguished writers, reimagines the inner, poetic, and spiritual life of Norma Jeane Baker—the child, the woman, the fated celebrity—and tells the story in Norma Jeane’s own voice: startling, rich, and shattering. This most intimate portrait of Norma Jeane reveals a fragile, idiosyncratically gifted young woman who makes and remakes her identity, ever managing to survive against crushing odds to become the definition of stardom. Bit by bit, she tells her own epic story of how an emblematic American artist—perpetually conflicted and intensely driven—lost her way.
Drawing on biographical and historical sources, Joyce Carol Oates evokes the distinct consciousness of the woman and the unsparing reflection of the myth, writing as she has never written before—ecstatic, completely absorbed, inhabited as if by the spirit of her extraordinary subject. Rich with psychological insight and disturbing irony, this mesmerizing narrative illumines Norma Jeane’s lonely childhood, wrenching adolescence, and the creation of “Marilyn Monroe.”
Distorted and misunderstood, the muted voice of Norma Jeane and the grand legacy of Marilyn Monroe are also a looking glass into the shadow-world of Hollywood. While paying tribute to the elusive art of acting and moviemaking, Joyce Carol Oates depicts the chilling panorama of an industry that nourishes and devours the “pure products” of America.
Blonde offers astonishing—and often disturbing—portraits of the powerful men in Norma Jeane’s life: the Ex-Athlete, the Playwright, the President, the Dark Prince.
With fresh insights into the heart of a celebrity culture hypnotized by its own myths, Blonde is a sweeping novel about the elusive magic of a woman, the lasting legacy of a star, and the heartbreak behind the creation of the most evocative icon of the twentieth century.
- National Book Award: finalist
- Pulitzer Prize: finalist
- International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award, 2002: Longlist
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
- Deauville American Film Festival: Lucien Barrière Literary Award, 2010: winner
In the circle of light on the state in the midst of darkness, you have the sensation of being entirely alone . . . . This is called solitude in public . . . . During a performance, before an audience of thousands, you can always enclose yourself in this circle, like a snail in its shell . . . . You can carry it wherever you go.
An Actor Prepares
(translated by Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood)
The acting area is a sacred space . . . where the actor cannot die.
The Actor’s Freedom
Genius is not a gift, but the way a person invents in desperate circumstances.
A lush-bodied girl in the prime of her physical beauty. In an ivory georgette crepe sundress with a halter top that gathers her breasts up in soft undulating folds of the fabric. She’s standing with bare legs apart on a New York subway grating. Her blond head is thrown rapturously back as an updraft lifts her full, flaring skirt, exposing white cotton panties. White cotton! The ivory-crepe sundress is floating and filmy as magic. The dress is magic. Without the dress the girl would be female meat, raw and exposed ….
Ohhh Daddy gosh I’m sorry keeping you waiting so long why didn’t you wait for me back at the hotel gosh why didn’t you? Until the white lights are extinguished and the men-with-no-faces are gone and as in a cinematic quick cut they’re alone together in the suite at the Waldorf-Astoria with quivering crystal chandeliers overhead and a guarantee of privacy and then she’ll back away from him begging. That same baby breath. The doll eyes shiny with fear. No. Daddy, don’t. See, I’m working? Tomorrow? Everybody will know if—But his hand, the husband’s hand, will leap out. Both hands. Balled into fists. These are big hands, an athlete’s hands, practiced hands, hands with fine black hairs on the backs. Because she’s resisting him. Provoking him. Shielding her face against the justice of his blows—Whore! Are you proud? Showing your crotch like that, on the street! My wife!—with the force of his final blow sending The Girl with No Name staggering against the silk-wallpapered wall, sweet as any home run.
“Gemini: The Collected Works of Marilyn Monroe”
By Greg Johnson
Originally published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 12, 2000.
Joyce Carol Oates is a novelist well-known for tackling large, controversial, uniquely American subjects.
Her novel “them,” winner of the 1970 National Book Award, culminated in a depiction of the Detroit race riots of 1967; “Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart” (1990) dramatized an interracial teenage romance; and the Pulitzer Prize nominated “Black Water” (1992) offered a fictional rendition of the Chappaquiddick incident, from the viewpoint of the drowning young woman. Oates’s short, grisly 1995 novel, “Zombie,” suggested by the Jeffrey Dahmer case, explored the psyche of a serial killer in all-too-convincing detail.
Now 61, Oates has produced her longest novel to date, a 738-page epic based on the brief, dazzling life of Norma Jeane Baker, better known as “Marilyn Monroe.” From her home in Princeton, N.J., Oates clarified her aims and ambitions in writing “Blonde,” a novel perhaps destined to become the most controversial of her career.
What was the genesis of “Blonde”? What prompted you to choose Marilyn Monroe as the focus of a novel?
Oates: Some years ago I happened to see a photograph of the 17-year-old Norma Jeane Baker. With her longish dark curly hair, artificial flowers on her head, locket around her neck, she looked nothing like the iconic “Marilyn Monroe.” 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 and obliterate. I saw her story as mythical, archetypal; it would end when she loses her baptismal name Norma Jeans, and takes on the studio name “Marilyn Monroe.” She would also have to bleach her brown hair to platinum blond, endure some facial surgery, and dress provocatively. I’d planned a 175-page novella, and the last line would have been “Marilyn Monroe.” The mode of storytelling would have been fairytalelike, as poetic as I could make appropriate.
Obviously, you’ve produced a long novel, not a novella. What happened?
Oates: In the writing, characteristically, the “novella” acquired a deeper, more urgent and epic life, and grew into a full-length novel. “What happened” is what usually happens in these cases. “Blonde” has several styles, but the predominant is that of psychological realism rather than the fairytale/surreal mode. The novel is a posthumous narration by the subject.
After I abandoned the novella form, I created an “epic” form to accommodate the complexities of the life. It was my intention to create a female portrait as emblematic of her time and place as Emma Bovary was of hers. (Of course, Norma Jeane is actually more complex, and certainly more admirable, than Emma Bovary.)
What led you to choose this unusual point of view, “a posthumous narration” by Norma Jeane herself?
Oates: This is a difficult question to answer. The voice, point of view, ironic perspective, mythic distance: this curious distancing effect is my approximation of how an individual might feel dreaming back over his or her own life at the very conclusion of that life, on the brink of extinction even as, as in a fairy tale, the individual life enters an abstract, communal “posterity.” Norma Jeane dies, and “Marilyn Monroe,” the role, the concoction, the artifice, would seem to endure.
At over 700 printed pages, this is your longest novel. But your original manuscript was even longer—1,400 pages. Why did you cut the novel so substantially?
Oates: At 1,400 pages, the novel had to be cut, and some sections, surgically removed from the manuscript, will be published independently. They are all part of Norma Jeane’s living, organic life. To me, the language of Norma Jeane is somehow “real.”
Still, a novel of such a length is a problem. Rights have been sold, according to my agent, to “nearly all languages” except Japanese where, if the novel were to be translated it would grow again by between one-third and one-half in length. In German, for instance, it will be massive enough!
You wrote and extensively revised this huge novel in less than a year. It must have been an intense writing experience?
Oates: I think, looking back upon the experience, that it is one I would not wish to relive. 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.
Could you describe your writing process as this novel evolved?
Oates: With a novel of such length, it was necessary to keep the narrative voice consistent and fluid. I was continually going back and rewriting, and when I entered the last phase of about 200 pages, I began simultaneously to rewrite the novel from the first page to about page 300, to assure this consistency of voice. (Though the voice changes, too, as Norma Jeans ages.) Actually, I recommend this technique for all novelists, even with shorter work. It’s akin to aerating soil, if you’re a gardener.
Since the 1960s, a number of well-known writers—Capote, Vidal, Mailer, DeLillo, and others—have focused ambitious novels on famous, and sometimes infamous, historical figures. Do you consider “Blonde” as falling into this tradition of the “nonfiction novel”?
Oates: The line of descent, so to speak, may derive from John Dos Passos’s “U.S.A.” with its lively, inventive portraits of “real people” mixed with fictional characters. Dos Passos’s Henry Ford, for instance, is an obvious ancestor of E.L. Doctorow’s emboldened portraits in “Ragtime.” Some of these are rather more playful/caricatured than serious portrayals of “real people.”
So much of “Blonde” is obviously fiction, to call it “nonfiction” would be misleading. (I explain in my preface: if you want historical veracity, you must go to the biographies. Even while perhaps not 100% accurate, they are at least predicated upon literal truth, while the novel aspires to a spiritual/poetic truth.)
Were you concerned that the glare of Marilyn Monroe’s celebrity and myth might divert attention from your artistic goals? What was the advantage to you, as a writer, of using the skeletal reality of her life, instead of creating a wholly fictional actress-character to dramatize the “spiritual/poetic truth” you sought?
Oates: I’d hoped to evoke a poetic, spiritual, “inner” truth by selecting incidents, images, representative figures from the life, and had absolutely no interest in a purely biographical or historic book. Pre-publication responses and interviews so far have indicated quite sympathetic and intelligent readings of the novel. Of course, there will be others, but angry or dismissive reviews can happen to us regardless of what we write, whether purely fiction or fiction based upon history. The writer may as well pursue his or her vision, and not be distracted by how others will respond in their myriad and unpredictable ways.
You did considerable research into Monroe’s life and into the art of acting. Did you come to see parallels between acting and writing? Did you develop a sense of kinship with Monroe as you wrote the novel?
Oates: Not “considerable research” compared to my biographer/scholar friends. Rather, I created an outline or skeleton of the “life,” collated with the “life of the time.” (“Blonde” is also a political novel, in part. The rise of Red Scare paranoia, the betrayals and back-stabbings in Hollywood; the assumptions of what we might call Cold War theology: we are God’s nation, the Soviet Union belongs to Satan.) All of my longer novels are political, but not obtrusively so, I hope.
Theater/acting fascinate, as a phenomenon of human experience. Why do we wish to “believe” the actor in performance, why are we moved to true emotions in a context which we know is artificial? Since 1990 I’ve been involved quite actively in theater, and have come to greatly admire both directors and actors. Norma Jeane seems to have been a naturally gifted actress because, perhaps, she so lacked an inner core of identity. “I guess I never believed that I deserved to live. The way other people do. I needed to justify my life.” These were words of Norma Jeane’s I affixed to the wall beside my desk. How many of us, I wonder, feel exactly the same way!
What concerns did you have in dealing with living people—for example, Monroe’s third husband, the playwright Arthur Miller—in a fictional context? Did you contact or interview Miller, or anyone else who knew Monroe?
Oates: No, I didn’t interview anyone about “Marilyn Monroe.” It was not “Marilyn Monroe” about whom I wrote. Norma Jeane marries mythic individuals, not “historic” figures. Her husbands include the Ex-Athlete and the Playwright. (If I wanted to write about Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, I would need to write about these complex men in a different mode. Though, in fact, the Playwright is presented from the inside, often. It’s clear that I identify with the Playwright, and that he becomes, eventually, the voice of conscience in the latter part of the novel. But I certainly didn’t read Arthur Miller’s memoir or any interviews with him about “Monroe.”)
Monroe’s reputation as an actress remains controversial. what is your assessment of her achievement as an artist?
Oates: She was a naturally gifted, often uncanny actress. Her fellow actors began by condescending to her, but ended by feeling awe for her on-film presence; she “out-acted” most of them. In movies, as in art, it isn’t what goes in, but what comes out, that matters. Your process of, for instance, acting, or writing, is not important; only what it leads you to matters. And the process, mysteriously, would seem to have little to do with that final product.
Did the writing of “Blonde” change your own view of Norma Jeane Baker?
Oates: Ultimately, I didn’t think of Norma Jeane as an isolated, idiosyncratic individual signifying nothing but herself, a specimen without a species; I came to think of her as a universal figure. I certainly hope that my portrait of her transcends sex and gender, and that male readers can identify as readily with her as female readers.
But I don’t recommend, for anyone, writing a psychologically realistic novel about any “historic” individual who is said to have committed suicide. It’s just too … painful.
- Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 2000, p11
- Booklist, January 1/15, 2000, p835
- Publishers Weekly, February 14, 2000, p171
- Library Journal, February 15, 2000, p198
- New York Times, March 31, 2000, pE45
- Artforum, Spring 2000, p22
- GQ, April 2000, p123
- Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 2, 2000, p1 (two reviews)
- New York Times Book Review, April 2, 2000, p6-7
- Newsday, April 2, 2000, pB6
- St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 2, 2000, pF13
- Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2000, pW6
- Entertainment Weekly, April 7, 2000, p98-99
- Atlanta Journal Constitution, April 9, 2000, pL13
- Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 9, 2000, p15F
- San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, April 9, 2000, p3
- Newsweek, April 10, 2000, p76
- USA Today, April 10, 2000, p1D
- Time, April 17, 2000, p82
- U.S. News & World Report, April 17, 2000, p14
- Salon.com, April 18, 2000
- Times Literary Supplement, April 21, 2000, p22
- Spectator, April 29, 2000, p33-34
- Toronto Sun, April 30, 2000, pC10
- Playboy, May 2000, p45
- Los Angeles Magazine, May 2000, p28
- London Free Press, May 6, 2000, pC6
- Dallas Morning News, May 7, 2000, p8J
- Washington Post Book World, May 7, 2000, p5
- Nation, May 8, 2000, p41-45
- People Weekly, May 15, 2000, p59
- Lambda Book Report, June 2000, p19
- New York Review of Books, June 15, 2000, p21-23
- Women’s Review of Books, July 2000, p39
- New Republic, July 10, 2000, p38
- Maclean’s, July 17, 2000, p48-49
- Courier Mail, July 22, 2000, Saturday, p. M5
- Sydney Morning Herald, July 29, 2000, sec. Books, p .9
- American Prospect, August 28, 2000, p52-54
- Village Voice, December 12, 2000, p102
- World Literature Today, Winter 2001,p115
Image: Alice Liddell as “The Beggar Maid” by Lewis Carroll
I'm a Reference Librarian at the University of San Francisco's Gleeson Library, and I run the Joyce Carol Oates web site, Celestial Timepiece.