Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Well, I certainly found the book compulsive reading, which has to count for a lot. There was an intense, dreamlike quality to the writing as perspective shifted constantly from Marilyn herself, to that of bystanders and others in the drama of her life, so that as reader, one felt deeply implicated in the narrative.
This same dreamlike quality also had an oddly dissociative, hallucinatory effect. One glimpsed Marilyn from so many angles, both internal and external, yet one never felt one truly grasped her or knew her. This seems fair enough; after all one can never truly know and grasp another person, even one’s nearest and dearest in real life. There is always part which remains unknowable, shifting.
However, this effect also gave the impression that Marilyn never really knew herself, but drifted through life in an odd dreamlike state, even before the last tragic period of her life when she was permanently addled on drugs. She never seemed in conscious control of events.
This brings me on to the presentation of Marilyn in general.
In the forward, the author warns us clearly and explicitly that this is a work of fiction, not a biography, and shouldn’t be read as such. I began reading the book knowing very little about the life of Marilyn Monroe and, as I became immersed in the tale, curiosity prompted me to read at least the Wikipedia entry on her life. I was surprised quite how much it differed, how names had been changed such as the name of her first husband or the family that had fostered her. This, of course, gives the author more licence to invent. She is not claiming to tell the truth about Marilyn’s real first husband, only a fictionalised version of a first husband. Whole major episodes and themes are apparently entirely invented such as an account of a relationship between a son of Charlie Chaplin which is an important factor in the book.
It was quite a curious feeling reading about the travails of a real person and even feeling sympathy and indignation on her behalf and then remembering that this was all invention.
Ultimately, this became uncomfortable. The novel presents Marilyn consistently as a victim of cynical male exploitation and objectification. She is a wide eyed lamb to the slaughter, much of the time. Marilyn’s intelligence and keenness to educate herself are emphasised, but it is also emphasised that this side of her was always met by amused contempt and incomprehension by the men in her life, that her thoughtful remarks were treated as being as freakish as if suddenly uttered by a big doll.
There must have been times surely in Marilyn’s life when she was shrewd and strong, when she was a supportive friend to other women, when she was clear-headed and self-aware? If so, little of this is allowed to come through in Blonde. A book that seeks to illustrate how Marilyn Monroe was exploited, objectified and reduced to meat somehow becomes part of that very process.
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