Wednesday, April 04, 2012

68. Blonde - Joyce Carol Oates

Catching up with a review on a book read previously (I finally found my pack of notes)...

This novel is a fictionalised biography of Marilyn Monroe. I don't know much about the real person, so I won't comment on the accuracy or otherwise of its portrayal. I did however find it quite readable and very interesting as a work of fiction.

Although it tries to pay tribute to her intelligence and endurance, overall, the emphasis is on Marilyn's vulnerability. Emotionally scarred by her psychopathic mother, institutionalised and then forced to marry at the age of 16 because her foster father was starting to look at her the wrong way, Blonde is largely the story of a delicate, creature – a hummingbird heart is the recurring imagery used – who is exploited as a physical object by just about every male who crosses her path.

Struggling to construct and retain some sense of self-worth and self-identity, Norma Jean is portrayed (no matter what her age) as a small scared child, hiding behind the glamour mask of Marilyn, at first sheltered by it, then increasingly consumed by it as she loses herself in a whirlpool of addiction and depression. The need to feed Marilyn's ego, and the barely submerged fears of Norma Jean's past combine to ruin every relationship which might give her the chance to feel normal.

Far from being a nymphomaniac, Norma Jean is portrayed as being a passive partner in all her sexual encounters, allowing herself to be used almost like an unresisting doll. As she gets older, she emphasises this passive role by calling all her husbands and lovers “Daddy”, trying to satisfy her sense of loss for the father she never met, preserving a fairytale belief that one day he would ride into her life and rescue her by providing the unconditional affection she desires.

The novel is LONG - over 700 pages, which the omniscient narrator never fails to remind us is going to end in tragedy. There is a constant tension between the impersonal legend – the Fair Princess, the Dark Prince, the Ex-Athlete, the Playwright and the President – and the personal story, told in Marilyn's own breathless, sweet, naivety.

"I saw that I must be sold. For there I would be desired, and I would be loved."

By the end, the lingering sense of a beautiful fairy tale possibility has been lost beneath all the gory details of the little girl's destruction. The universal myth recedes and the sordid reality takes over. The writing was powerful, or I wouldn't have made it to the end. She almost lost me a few times, but by the end I was crouching by torchlight, desperate for it to finish. In a way this struck me a betrayal of Marilyn (meaning Marilyn the character in the novel, and possibly also Marilyn the real person and Marilyn the symbol). While seemingly promising to set her free from the glittering cage of legend, the novel actually confines her as an impotent songbird with the focus of the story really being a condemnation of the forces surrounding her – instead of an investigation of feminism mystique, it came across as a scathing and unforgiving condemnation of masculine insensitivity. It left me feeling that Norma Jean had been exploited just one more unnecessary time.

I am glad I found my notes on this one - I really don't want to ever read it again.

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