Blind leading the blonde

Is Joyce Carol Oates' Blonde the Great American Novel? - Cressida Connolly thinks not

Joyce Carol Oates
Fourth Estate £17.99, pp738
Buy it at BOL

There are many reasons to love Marilyn Monroe: the breathy sweetness of her, the talent, the luminous beauty, the sad, short life. The sad, short life maybe most of all. We love feeling sorry for her: feeling sorry for the childhood in orphanage and foster homes, the broken marriages, the failed pregnancies, the early death.

Admiring Marilyn feels less trivial than the adulation of any ordinary pin-up because the love - or the lust - is mixed with pity. And the moral high ground of compassion makes us feel special, more sensitive, nicer. It also bestows a licence to snoop, allowing us to inquire into the most private reaches of her life without charges of prurience.

Joyce Carol Oates must have believed as much, while she was writing this fictionalised account of Marilyn's life. I do not think she approached this project cynically. With a distinguished track record of 30 books behind her, she cannot have meant to exploit her subject. Ever mindful of how Marilyn was exploited during her lifetime - underpaid, undervalued, overexposed - adding insult to injury must have been furthest from her intentions. Despite her intellectual credentials, however, Oates is unable to resist the lurid thrill of the tabloid imagination. Blonde is a shabby piece of work.

The trouble lies with the form. Fictionalising a life is a dodgy business, because the only thing which separates it from biography is conjecture, and, by extension, untruth. When the facts of the subject's life are as copiously recorded as Marilyn's, only the wildest invention can heave such an enterprise into fiction. Thus Oates tells us that Marilyn considered bearing Marlon Brando's child, that President Kennedy forced her to fellate him, that a hostile cloakroom attendant once handed her a bloody package containing the remains of Marilyn's own dead foetus.

Oates has a particular fondness for gore. 'Synecdoche is the principle of appropriation', a pompous author's note informs us, to which one might add that menstruation is the principle of fictionalisation. The author is obsessed by Marilyn's menses, repeatedly describing her cramps, her 'ugly, brown menstrual blood', the 'brackish, clotted ill-smelling' discharge. But it takes more than a sodden sanitary towel (another feature here) to bring a character to life.

Blonde 's gravest flaw is that it fails to make Marilyn a living, breathing presence. After 738 pages, she is no more vivid than had we listened to 'Candle in the Wind' on the car radio. Oates's wholly unoriginal thesis is that Marilyn was a lost soul, looking for a father figure. There is no sign here of her purported wit and intelligence; no sense of humour, no sexiness. Even the much reported vulnerability is clichéd.

Oates does not, I think, see Marilyn as an individual but rather as an emblematic figure, the heroine of a contemporary fable in which fame is the wicked stepmother. This would explain, too, the obfuscation of the supporting cast's names: Tony Curtis is 'C', Lawrence Olivier 'O', Ava Gardner is, unaccountably, 'the Rat Beauty'. Instead of Joe Di Maggio, Arthur Miller, J.F. Kennedy, the male leads are referred to as 'the Ex-Athlete', 'the Playwright' and 'the President'. Marilyn herself is called variously Norma Jeane (sic), the Blonde Actress and the Beggar Maid. The implication is clear - Blonde is more than mere fiction. Its portentous style and tremendous length affirm as much. This is meant to be the Great American Novel.

But Blonde does not deserve a place in the canon. Because it exploits Marilyn Monroe, just as it accuses others of doing. Because its psychology is puerile. Because its emphasis on the bloody, the physical, is no substitute for insight. Because anyone who is really interested in Marilyn will find more truth in a biography. Because anyone who is not interested in her will not want to read it anyway. Because it is too long! Because it is littered with exclamation marks! Because it wilfully sets out to be epoch-making. Because it contains whole paragraphs - and one entire chapter - in which every sentence begins with the word because. And because there will never be a substitute for watching Marilyn herself, radiant and immortal, shimmy across the screen.

Cressida Connolly

The GuardianTramp

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