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Wednesday, January 2nd, 2002



by Joyce Carol Oates


A review by Adrienne Miller

GIST: This novel about the life and death of Norma Jeane Baker, aka Marilyn Monroe, may be, next to her story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been" the finest thing (the horrifically prolific) Joyce Carol Oates has ever written.

DETAILS: Above all else, Blonde is an American story, and its uniquely American trajectory is familiar: the rise, and the inevitable collapse, of an icon. (How conditioned we are to think this way! The subtext of all those "Where Are They Now" TV shows and books: Success isn't worth having in the first place, because it always goes awry, then away.) The blond actress of Blonde is complex, human, strange. From her childhood as a dreamy and oddly precocious little orphan girl, to her teenage years as a young married woman who just wants to please her young husband (or thinks that's what she's supposed to want: Norma Jeane was indubitably a pre-feminist icon), to her marriages, her miscarriages ("the poison in her womb"), her affairs with the men who, we have no choice but to believe, finally destroyed her ("used, and discarded like tissue").

If Oates seems infatuated with Norma Jeane's body — half of the 738-page book seems devoted to physical descriptions (how does it feel to be in her skin?) — that's because the body is all the actress was reduced to. The final question, of course, and the ultimate test of Blonde's success: Do we believe it, do we buy it, and this version of her? The answer: Yes, we do believe that this is the "true" Marilyn Monroe — inasmuch as we'll allow ourselves to believe that there is a "truth" behind an image. By the end of Blonde, not only do we feel as if we know her, we feel as if we are her. She is as searching, conflicted, confused, inspired, and passionate as we hope ourselves to be.

AS OATES PUTS IT: "She was a genius, if you believe in genius. Because Norma didn't have a clue who she was, and she had to fill this emptiness in her. Each time she went out, she had to invent her soul. Other people, we're just as empty; maybe in fact everybody's soul is empty, but Norma was the one to know it."

Adrienne Miller is Esquire's literary editor.

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