There is no denying that Marilyn Monroe is one of America's most beloved icons. Still, when the reader is confronted with a massive copy of Blonde, Joyce Carol Oates's fictional retelling of Marilyn Monroe's life, a question does come to mind: What could Oates possibly have written about Monroe's brief life and career that could fill more than 700 pages?
The answer? Sex.
Blonde is one long, racy read. Oates recounts every telling event in the life of Norma Jeane Baker, from her early days with her grandmother to the years spent with her crazy mother to her teenage years in an orphanage and, following her mother's institutionalization, in a foster home. After Norma Jeane's first marriage, the hagiography continues with the birth of "MM," her subsequent marriages, stardom, and the "questionable" circumstances of her death at the age of 36 (not surprisingly, Oates suggests that, rather than succumbing to an accidental overdose, or intentional suicide, Marilyn was murdered). And the thread weaving together all 36 years is sex.
Casting-couch sex is to be expected in a book on or about Marilyn Monroe, and Oates doesn't disappoint. One encounter takes place not on a couch but rather on a white rug during a visit to a famous studio honcho's aviary, which turns out to be nothing more than a few stuffed birds in his office. Marilynat once naive and knowinggets busy with tons of men in Blonde. (Oates tactfully names few outright, preferring instead to use thinly veiled sobriquets like "the Ex-Athlete" or "the Playwright.") There are also countless chapters on lesser-known, yet quite torrid love affairs, including a three-way relationship Marilyn carries on with Charlie Chaplin Jr. and Eddie Robinson Jr. They live and love and drink and do drugs together. Their sex sessions, as re-created by Oates, are heated, fascinating, tangled. They even have a name for themselves: The Gemini. Oates covers all of Marilyn's affairs, including the much-rumored liaison with President Kennedy. In one memorable scene from this era, Oates has the duo shacked up in a New York hotel, the President pressing Marilyn's head down, down, down as he speaks with Castro on the telephone. In this après-Lewinsky era this scenario is neither shocking nor original. But in 1961? Boop-boop-bee-doo!
Oates roots Marilyn's sexuality strongly in her past, beginning with the men she meets while living with her foster family. A teacher. A detective. A few boys her own age. Her foster mother hates the way her husband looks at Norma Jeane's "sweet little ass," so she marries Norma Jeane off at 16 to a lanky boy named Bucky Glazer. Norma's wedding, loss of virginity, and married sex life span chapters. It is hard to imagine Monroe preparing meatloaf dinners for a husband, but Oates makes it believable. Norma and Bucky are doomed from the start. So are Norma and most men. And there are many men. Oates lists pages of lovers taken from the files of the FBI: Robert Mitchum, Eddie Fisher, Mickey Rooney, Clark Gable, Samuel Goldwyn, the Marx brothers, Ronald Reagan, etc.
Marilyn's body makes her irresistible to men. Oates makes this body a character of its own, chronicling its various developmental phases. At first, Marilyn hates her body and the commotion it causes. But gradually she learns to use it, to work it. Sometimes she embraces it. It is a body ravaged by loss, by time, by men. It weathers abortions, miscarriages, multiple drug overdoses, and bleach (the chemicals that create her signature blonde coif sting when applied to pubic hair). Oates pounds home her sexual theme with constant commentary on Marilyn's looks, her breasts, her skin, her ass. Oh, that ass! Oates is unrelenting. Her language and tales are often harsh: Marilyn can't even go to a public theater to watch one of her own movies without drawing the unwelcome attention of a man who masturbates to her image onscreen and off.
Blonde is both an unwieldy and fascinating work. Oates convincingly reduces this larger-than-life movie star to a tiny, broken girl. Oates's Marilyn is truly unwell, in many ways as disturbed as her mother was. Her sexual misadventures and inability to function in any orthodox relationship are clearly tied to her abandonment as a child. She is by turns miserable, unstable, insecure, and delusional. Ultimately, Blonde itself is impressive; an eerie, gossipy, voyeuristic experience. Enticing, but also devastating.
Alexandra Zissu is a freelance writer and writer-at-large at Fashion Wire Daily. She has written for The New York Observer, The New York Times Styles section, Harper's Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, and Self.