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About the Author
Joyce Carol Oates is a recipient of the National Medal of Humanities, the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Book Award, and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, and has been several times nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She has written some of the most enduring fiction of our time, including the national bestsellers We Were the Mulvaneys, Blonde, which was nominated for the National Book Award, and the New York Times bestseller The Falls, which won the 2005 Prix Femina. Her most recent novel is A Book of American Martyrs. She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978.
Hometown:Princeton, New Jersey
Date of Birth:June 16, 1938
Place of Birth:Lockport, New York
Education:B.A., Syracuse University, 1960; M.A., University of Wisconsin, 1961
Read an Excerpt
This movie I've been seeing all my life, yet never to its completion.
Almost she might say This movie is my life!
Her mother first took her when she was two or three years old. Her earliest memory, so exciting! Grauman's Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. This was years before she'd been able to comprehend even the rudiments of the movie story, yet she was enthralled by the movement, the ceaseless rippling fluid movement, on the great screen above her. Not yet capable of thinking This was the very universe upon which are projected uncountable unnameable forms of life. How many times in her lost childhood and girlhood she would return with yearning to this movie, recognizing it at once despite the variety of its titles, its many actors. For always there was the Fair Princess. And always the Dark Prince. A complication of events brought them together and tore them apart and brought them together again and again tore them apart until, as the movie neared its end and the movie music soared, they were about to be brought together in a fierce embrace.
Yet not always happily. You couldn't predict. For sometimes one knelt beside the deathbed of the other and heralded death with a kiss. Even if he (or she) survived the death of the beloved, you knew the meaning of life was over.
For there is no meaning to life apart from the movie story.
And there is no movie story apart from the darkened movie theater.
But how vexing,never to see the end of the movie!
For always something went wrong: there was a commotion in the theater and the lights came up; a fire alarm (but no fire? or was there a fire? once, she was sure she smelled smoke) sounded loudly and everyone was asked to leave, or she was herself late for an appointment and had to leave, or maybe she fell asleep in her seat and missed the ending and woke dazed as the lights came up and strangers around her rose to leave.
Over, it's over? But how can it be over?
Yet as an adult woman she continued to seek out the movie. Slipping into theaters in obscure districts of the city or in cities unknown to her. Insomniac, she might buy a ticket for a midnight show. She might buy a ticket for the first show of the day, in the late morning. She wasn't fleeing her own life (though her life had grown baffling to her, as adult life does to those who live it) but instead easing into a parenthesis within that life, stopping time as a child might arrest the movement of a clock's hands: by force. Entering the darkened theater (which sometimes smelled of stale popcorn, the hair lotion of strangers, disinfectant), excited as a young girl looking up eagerly to see on the screen yet again Oh, another time! one more time! the beautiful blond woman who seems never to age, encased in flesh like any woman and yet graceful as no ordinary woman could be, a powerful radiance shining not only in her luminous eyes but in her very skin. For my skin is my soul. There is no soul otherwise. You see in me the promise of human joy. She who slips into the theater, choosing a seat in a row near the screen, gives herself unquestioningly up to the movie that's both familiar and unfamiliar as a recurring dream imperfectly recalled. The costumes of the actors, the hairstyles, even the faces and voices of the movie people change with the years, and she can remember, not clearly but in fragments, her own lost emotions, the loneliness of her childhood only partly assuaged by the looming screen. Another world to live in. Where? There was a day, an hour, when she realized that the Fair Princess, who is so beautiful because she is so beautiful and because she is the Fair Princess, is doomed to seek, in others' eyes, confirmation of her own being. For we are not who we are told we are, if we are not told. Are we?
Adult unease and gathering terror.
The movie story is complicated and confusing, though familiar or almost familiar. Perhaps it's carelessly spliced together. Perhaps it's meant to tease. Perhaps there are flashbacks amid present time. Or flash-forwards! Close-ups of the Fair Princess seem too intimate. We want to stay on the outsides of others, not be drawn inside. If I could say, There! that's me! That woman, that thing on the screen, that's who I am. But she can't see ahead to the ending. Never has she seen the final scene, never the concluding credits rolling past. In these, beyond the final movie kiss, is the key to the movie's mystery, she knows. As the body's organs, removed in an autopsy, are the key to the life's mystery.
But there will be a time maybe this very evening when, slightly out of breath, she settles into a worn, soiled plush seat in the second row of an old theater in a derelict district of the city, the floor curving beneath her feet like the earth's curve and sticky against the soles of her expensive shoes; and the audience is scattered, mostly solitary individuals; and she's relieved that, in her disguise (dark glasses, an attractive wig, a raincoat) no one will recognize her and no one from her life knows she's here, or could guess where she might be. This time I will see it through to the end. This time! Why? She has no idea. And in fact she's expected elsewhere, she's hours late, possibly a car was scheduled to take her to the airport, unless she's days late, weeks late; for she's become, as an adult, defiant of time. For what is time but others' expectations of us? That game we can refuse to play. So too, she's noticed, the Fair Princess is confused by time, Confused by the movie story. You take your cues from other people. What if other people don't provide cues? In this movie the Fair Princess is no longer in the first bloom of her youthful beauty, yet of course she's still beautiful, white-skinned and radiant on the screen as she climbs out of a taxi on a windswept street; she's in disguise in dark glasses, a sleek brown wig, and a tightly belted raincoat, closely tracked by the camera as she slips into a movie theater and purchases a single ticket, enters the darkened theater, and takes a seat in the second row. Because she's the Fair Princess, other patrons glance at her but don't recognize her; perhaps she's an ordinary woman, though beautiful, no one they know. The movie has begun. She gives herself up to it within seconds, removing her dark glasses. Her head is forced back by the angle of the screen looming over her, and her eyes are cast upward in an expression of childlike, slightly apprehensive awe. Like reflections in water, the movie light ripples across her face. Lost in wonderment she's unaware of the Dark Prince having followed her into the theater; the camera broods upon him as, for several tense minutes, he stands behind frayed velvet drapes at a side aisle. His handsome face is veiled in shadow. His expression is urgent. He is wearing a dark suit, no necktie, a fedora hat slanted over his forehead. At a music cue he comes quickly forward to lean over her, the solitary woman in the second row. He whispers to her and she turns, startled. Her surprise seems genuine though she must know the script: the script to this point, at least, and a little beyond.
My love! It's you.
Never has it been anyone except you.
In the reflected shimmering light from the gigantic screen the faces of the lovers are charged with meaning, heralds from a lost age of grandeur. As if, though diminished and mortal, they must play out the scene. They will play out the scene. Boldly he grips her by the nape of her neck to steady her. To claim her. To possess her. How strong his fingers, and icy; how strange, the glassy glisten of his eyes, closer than she's ever seen them before.
Yet another time, she sighs and lifts her perfect face to the Dark Prince's kiss.
It is in early childhood that the born actor emerges, for it is in early childhood that the world is first perceived as Mystery. The origin of all acting is improvisation in the face of Mystery.
The Paradox of Acting
"See? That man is your father."
There was a day, it was Norma Jeane's sixth birthday, the first day of June 1932, and a magical morning it was, blinding breathless whitely dazzling, in Venice Beach, California. The wind off the Pacific Ocean fresh and cool and astringent, smelling only faintly of the usual briny rot and beach debris. And borne, it seemed, by that very wind came Mother. Gaunt-faced Mother with her luscious red lips and plucked and penciled brows who came for Norma Jeane where she was living with her grandparents in a pockmarked old ruin of a beige stucco building on Venice Boulevard"Norma Jeane, come!" And Norma Jeane ran, ran to Mother! Her pudgy little hand caught in Mother's slender hand, that feel of the black-net glove strange to her and wonderful. For Grandma's hands were chafed old-woman's hands, as Grandma's smell was an old-woman smell, but Mother's smell was so sweet it made you dizzy, like a taste of hot sugary lemon. "Norma Jeane, my lovecome." For Mother was "Gladys," and "Gladys" was the child's true mother. When she chose to be. When she was strong enough. When the demands of The Studio allowed. For Gladys's life was "three dimensions verging into four" and not "flat as a Parcheesi board" like most lives. And in the face of Grandma Della's flustered disapproval, Mother led Norma Jeane in triumph out of the third-floor apartment reeking with onions, lye soap, and bunion ointment, and Grandpa's pipe tobacco, ignoring the older woman's outrage like a frantic-comic radio voice"Gladys, whose car are you driving this time?""Look at me, girl: Are you hopped up? Are you drunk?""When will you be bringing my granddaughter back?""Damn you, wait for me, wait till I get my shoes on, I'm coming downstairs too! Gladys!" And Mother called out in her calmly maddening soprano voice, "'Qué sera, sera.'" And giggling like naughty pursued children, Mother and Daughter hurried down flights of stairs as down a mountainside, breathless and gripping hands, and so out! outside! to Venice Boulevard and the excitement of Gladys's car, never a predictable car, parked at the curb; and on this bright-dazzling morning of the first of June 1932 the magical car was, as Norma Jeane stared, smiling, a humpbacked Nash the hue of dishwater when the soap has gone flat, the passenger's window cracked like a spiderweb and mended with tape. Yet what a wonderful car, and how young and excited Gladys was, she who rarely touched Norma Jeane now lifting her with both net-gloved hands into the passenger's seat"Whoops, baby-love!"as if lifting her into the seat of the Ferris wheel at Santa Monica pier to bear her, wide-eyed and thrilled, into the sky. And slammed the door beside her, hard. And made certain it was locked. (For there was an old fear, a fear of Mother for Daughter, that during such flights, a car door might open, as a trapdoor might open in a silent film, and Daughter would be lost!) And climbing into the driver's seat behind the wheel like Lindbergh into the cockpit of the Spirit of St. Louis. And revved the motor, and shifted gears, and pulled out into traffic even as poor Grandma Della, a mottled-faced fattish woman in a faded cotton housecoat and rolled cotton "support" stockings and old-woman shoes, burst out onto the front stoop of the building like Charlie Chaplin the Little Tramp in frantic-comic distress.
"Wait! Oh, you wait! Crazy woman! Hophead! I forbid you! I'll call the po-lice!"
But there was no waiting, oh, no.
Hardly time to breathe!
"Ignore your grandmother, dear. She is silent film and we are talkies."
For Gladys, who was this child's true mother, would not be cheated of Mother Love on this special day. Feeling "stronger, at last" and with a few bucks saved, so Gladys had come for Norma Jeane on the child's birthday (her sixth? already? oh, Jesus, depressing) as she'd vowed she would. "Rain or shine, sickness or health, till death do us part. I vow." Not even a seizure of the San Andreas Fault could dissuade Gladys in such a mood. "You're mine. You look like me. No one is going to steal you from me, Norma Jeane, like my other daughters."
These triumphant, terrible words Norma Jeane did not hear, did not hear, did not, blown away by the rushing wind.
This day, this birthday, would be the first that Norma Jeane would remember clearly. This wonderful day with Gladys who was sometimes Mother, or Mother who was sometimes Gladys. A slender darting bird of a woman with sharp prowling eyes and a self-described "raptor's smile" and elbows that jabbed you in the ribs if you got too close. Exhaling luminous smoke from her nostrils like curving elephant tusks so you dared not call her by any name, above all not "Mama" or "Mommy"those "pukey-cute titles" that Gladys had long ago forbiddenor even look at her too intensely"Don't squint at me, you! No close-ups. Unless I'm prepared." At such times Gladys's edgy brittle laugh was the sound an ice pick makes stabbing into blocks of ice. This day of revelation Norma Jeane would recall through her life of thirty-six years, sixty-three days, which was to be a life outlived by Gladys as a doll baby might be fitted snug inside a larger doll ingeniously hollowed out for that purpose. Did I want any other happiness? No, just to be with her. Maybe to cuddle a little and sleep in her bed with her if she'd let me. I loved her so. In fact, there was evidence that Norma Jeane had been with her mother on other birthdays of hers, at least Norma Jeane's first birthday, though Norma Jeane could not recall except by way of snapshotsHAPPY 1ST BIRTHDAY BABY NORMA JEANE!a hand-lettered paper banner draped like a bathing beauty's sash around the blinking damp-eyed infant with the chubby-cute moon face, dimpled cheeks, curly dark-blond hair, and satin ribbons drooping in the hair; like old dreams these snapshots were blurred and creased, taken evidently by a man friend; there was a very young very pretty though feverish-looking Gladys in bobbed hair, kiss curls, and bee-stung lips like Clara Bow gripping her twelve-month infant "Norma Jeane" stiff on her lap as you might grip an object breakable and precious, with awe if not with visible pleasure, with steely pride if not with love, the date scrawled on the backs of these several snapshots June 1, 1927. But six-year-old Norma Jeane possessed no more memory of that occasion than she had of being bornwanting to ask Gladys or Grandma, How do you be born, was that something you did yourself?to her mother in a charity lying-in ward at the Los Angeles County General Hospital after twenty-two hours of "unremitting hell" (as Gladys spoke of the ordeal) or carried in Gladys's "special pouch" beneath her heart for eight months, eleven days. She could not remember! Yet, thrilled to be staring at these snapshots whenever Gladys was in a mood to display them tumbled across whatever bed-spread atop whatever bed of Gladys's in whatever rental "residence," she never doubted that the infant in the snapshot was her as all through my life I would know of myself through the witnessing and naming of others. As Jesus in the Gospels is only seen and spoken of and recorded by others. I would know my existence and the value of that existence through others' eyes, which I believed I could trust as I could not trust my own.
Gladys was glancing at her daughter, whom she hadn't seen inwell, months. Saying sharply, "Don't be so nervous. Don't squint as if I'm going to crash this car in the next minute, you'll make yourself need glasses and that's the end for you. And try not to squirm like a little snake needing to pee. I never taught you such bad habits. I don't intend to crash this car, if that's what you're worried about, like your ridiculous old grandma. I promise." Gladys cast a sidelong glance at the child, chiding yet seductive, for that was Gladys's way: she pushed you off, she drew you in; now saying in a husky lowered voice, "Say: Mo-ther has a birthday surprise for you. Waiting up ahead."
Gladys sucked in her cheeks, smiling as she drove.
"W-where are we going, M-mother?"
Happiness so acute it was broken glass in Norma Jeane's mouth.
Even in warm humid weather, Gladys wore stylish black-net gloves to protect her sensitive skin. Gaily she thumped both gloved hands against the steering wheel. "Where are we going? Listen to you. As if you've never been in your mother's Hollywood residence before."
Norma Jeane smiled in confusion. Trying to think. Had she? The implication seemed to be that Norma Jeane had forgotten something essential, that this was a betrayal of a kind, a disappointment. Yet it seemed Gladys moved frequently. Sometimes she informed Della and sometimes not. Her life was complicated and mysterious. There were problems with landlords and fellow tenants; there were "money" problems and "maintenance" problems. The previous winter, a brief violent earthquake in an area of Hollywood in which Gladys lived had left her homeless for two weeks, forced to live with friends and out of touch completely with Della. Always, however, Gladys lived in Hollywood. Or West Hollywood. Her work at The Studio demanded it. Because she was a "contract employee" at The Studio (The Studio was the largest movie production company in Hollywood, therefore in the world, boasting more stars under contract "than there are stars in the constellations"), her life didn't belong to her"The way Catholic nuns are 'brides of Christ.'" Gladys had had to board out her daughter since Norma Jeane was an infant of only twelve days, mostly with the child's grandmother, for five dollars a week plus expenses, it was a damned hard life, it was grueling, it was sad, but what choice had she, working such long hours at The Studio, sometimes a double shift, at her boss's "beckon-call"how could she possibly take on the care and burden of a young child?
"I dare anyone to judge me. Unless he's in my shoes. Or she. Yes, she!"
Gladys spoke with mysterious vehemence. It may have been her own mother, Della, with whom she was feuding.
When they quarreled, Della spoke of Gladys as a "hot-head"or was it "hop-head"?and Gladys protested this was a downright lie, a slander; why, she'd never even smelled marijuana being smoked, let alone smoked it herself"And that goes double for opium. Never!" Della had heard too many wild and unsubstantiated tales of movie people. True, Gladys sometimes got excited. Fire burning inside me! Beautiful. True, at other times she was susceptible to "the blues," "down in the dumps," "the pit." Like my soul is molten lead, leaked out and hardened. Still, Gladys was a good-looking young woman, and Gladys had lots of friends. Men friends. Who complicated her emotional life. "If the fellows would let me alone, 'Gladys' would be fine." But they didn't, so Gladys had to medicate herself regularly. Prescription drugs or maybe drugs provided by the fellows. Admittedly she lived on Bayer aspirin and had developed a high tolerance for it, dissolving pills in black coffee like tiny sugar cubes"Can't taste a thing!"
This morning, Norma Jeane saw at once that Gladys was in an "up" mood: distracted, flamey, funny, unpredictable as a candle flame flickering in agitated air. Her waxy-pale skin gave off waves of heat like pavement in summer sun and her eyes!flirty, slip-sliding and dilated. Those eyes I loved. Couldn't bear to look at. Gladys was driving distractedly, and fast. In a car with Gladys was like being in a bumper car at the carnival, you hung on tight. They were driving inland, away from Venice Beach and the ocean. North on the Boulevard to La Cienega, and at last to Sunset Boulevard, which Norma Jeane recognized from other drives with her mother. How the humpbacked Nash rattled as it sped along, prodded by Gladys's restless foot on the gas pedal. They clattered over trolley tracks, braked at the last second for red lights, causing Norma Jeane's teeth to rattle even as she giggled nervously. Sometimes, Gladys's car skidded into the midst of an intersection like a movie scene of honking horns, shouts, and fists waved by other drivers; unless the drivers were men, alone in their automobiles, when the signals were friendlier. More than once, Gladys ignored a traffic policeman's whistle and escaped "See, I didn't do anything wrong! I refuse to be intimidated by bullies."
Della liked to complain in her jokey-angry way that Gladys had "lost" her driver's license, which meantwhat? She'd lost it, the way people lost things? Misplaced it? Or had one of the policemen taken it from her, to punish her, when Norma Jeane hadn't been around?
One thing Norma Jeane knew: She didn't dare ask Gladys.
Off Sunset they turned onto a side street, and then another, and finally onto La Mesa, a narrow, disappointing street of small businesses, diners, "cocktail" lounges, and apartment buildings; Gladys said this was her "new neighborhood I'm only just discovering, and feeling so welcome in." Gladys explained that The Studio was "only a six-minute drive away." There were "personal reasons" she was living here, too complicated to explain. But Norma Jeane would see"It's part of your surprise." Gladys parked the car in front of a cheap Spanish-style stucco building with decaying green awnings and disfiguring fire escapes. THE HACIENDA. ROOMS & EFFICENCY APTS WEEKLY MONTHLY RENTAL INQUIRE WITHIN. The street number was 387. $orma Jeane stared, memorizing what she saw; she was a camera taking snapshots; one day she might be lost and have to find her way back to this place she'd never seen before until this moment, but with Gladys such moments were urgent, highly charged and mysterious, to make your pulse beat hard as with a drug. Like amphetamine it was, that charge. As through my life I would seek it. Making my way like a sleepwalker out of my life back to La Mesa to the Hacienda as to the place on Highland Avenue where I was a child again, in her charge again, under her spell again, and the nightmare had not yet hap- pened.
Gladys saw the look on Norma Jeane's face that Norma Jeane herself could not see, and laughed. "Birthday girl! You're only six once. You might not even live to be seven, silly. Let's go."
Norma Jeane's hand was sweaty so Gladys declined to take it, instead prodding the child to move with her gloved fist, lightly, of course, playfully directing her up the slightly crumbling outside steps of the Hacienda and inside into an oven-hot interior, a flight of gritty linoleum-covered stairs "There's someone waiting for us, and I'm afraid he may be getting impatient. Come on." They hurried. They ran. Galloping upward. Gladys in her glam- orous high heels, suddenly panickedor was she playing at being panicked? was this one of her scenes? Upstairs, both mother and daughter were pant- ing. Gladys unlocked the door of her "residence," which turned out to be not very different from the former residence Norma Jeane vaguely recalled. There were three cramped rooms with stained wallpaper and stained ceil- ings, narrow windows, sheets of loose linoleum on bare floorboards, a cou- ple of Mexican rag rugs, a leaky-smelly icebox and a double-burner hot plate and dishes in the sink and shiny black roaches like watermelon seeds scut- tling away noisily at their approach. Tacked to the kitchen walls were posters of films with which Gladys had been involved and of which she was proud Kiki with Mary Pickford, All Quiet on the Western Front with Lew Ayres, City Lights with Charlie Chaplin, at whose soulful eyes Norma Jeane could
stare and stare, convinced Chaplin was seeing her. It wasn't clear what Gladys had had to do with these famous films, but Norma Jeane was mes- merized by the actors' faces. This is home! This place I remember. Familiar, too, was the airless heat of the apartment, for Gladys didn't believe in leav- ing windows open even a crack while she was away, the pungent odor of food smells, coffee grounds, cigarette ashes, scorch, perfume, and that mys- terious acrid chemical odor Gladys could never entirely wash away even if she scrubbed, scrubbed, scrubbed at her hands with medicinal soap and made them raw and bleeding. Yet these smells were comforting to Norma Jeane for they meant home. Where Mother was.
But this new apartment! It was more crowded and disordered and strange to her than the others. Or was Norma Jeane older now, and able better to see? As soon as you stepped inside there was that suspended terrible moment between the first tremor of the earth and the next more powerful tremor that would be unmistakable and deniable. You waited, not daring to breathe. Here were many opened but unpacked boxes stamped PROPERTY OF STUDIO. There were piles of clothes on the kitchen counter and clothes on wire hang- ers on a makeshift clothesline stretching across the kitchen, so it looked at first as if there were people crowded into the kitchen, women in "cos- tumes"Norma Jeane knew what "costumes" were, that they differed from "clothes," though she could not have explained the distinction. Some of these costumes were glitzy and glamorous, flimsy "flapper" dresses with tiny skirts and string straps. Some were more somber, with long trailing sleeves. There were panties and bras and stockings washed and neatly placed over the clothesline to dry. Gladys was watching Norma Jeane, as she stared open- mouthed at these clothes dangling overhead, and laughed at the child's con- fused expression. "What's wrong? Do you disapprove? Does Della? Has she sent you to spy? Go onin here. Through here. Go on."
She prodded Norma Jeane with her sharp elbow into the next room, a bed- room. It was small, with a badly water-stained ceiling and walls, and a sin- gle window, and a partly drawn, cracked, and stained shade over the window. And there was the familiar bed with its gleaming if slightly tar- nished brass headstead and goose-down pillows, a pine bureau, a bedside table piled with pill bottles, magazines, and paperback books, an overflow- ing ashtray perched atop a copy of Hollywood Tatler; more clothes strewn about, and on the floor more opened but unpacked boxes; and a large gar- ish movie still of The Hollywood Revue of 1929 with Marie Dressler in a diaphanous white gown on a wall beside the bed. Gladys was excited, breath- ing quickly and watching as Norma Jeane glanced anxiously aroundfor where was the "surprise" person? Hiding? Beneath the bed? Inside a closet? (But there wasn't a closet, just a beaverboard wardrobe leaning against a wall.) A lone fly buzzed. Through the room's single window there was visible only the blank smudged wall of the adjacent building. Norma Jeane was wondering Where? Who is it? even as Gladys nudged her lightly between the shoulder blades, chiding, "Norma Jeane, I swear you're half blind sometimes as well aswell, half dumb. Can't you see? Open your eyes and see? That man is your father."
Now Norma Jeane saw where Gladys was pointing.
It was not a man. It was a picture of a man, hanging on the wall beside the bureau mirror.
On my sixth birthday seeing his face for the first time.
And not having known before that dayI had a father! A father like other children.
Always thinking the absence had to do with me. Something wrong, something bad, in me.
Had no one told me before? Not my mother, not my grandmother or grandfather. No one.
Yet never to look upon his actual face, in life. And I would die before him.
Table of Contents
|Prologue 3 August 1962|
|The Child 1932-1938|
|City of Sand||34|
|Aunt Jess and Uncle Clive||64|
|The Lost One||71|
|The Gift Givers||76|
|The Girl 1942-1947|
|"Time to Get Married"||101|
|The Embalmer's Boy||136|
|Daughter and Mother||195|
|The Woman 1949-1953|
|The Dark Prince||221|
|"Miss Golden Dreams" 1949||223|
|The Broken Altar||271|
|The Death of Rumpelstiltskin||303|
|"Can't Get Enough of Polish Sausage"||374|
|The Ex-Athlete: The Sighting||376|
|Where Do You Go When You Disappear?||392|
|The Ex-Athlete and the Blond Actress: The Date||394|
|The Scream. The Song||409|
|The Ex-Athlete and the Blond Actress: The Proposal||413|
|After the Wedding: A Montage||433|
|The American Goddess of Love on the Subway Grating New|
|York City 1954||472|
|"My Beautiful Lost Daughter"||475|
|After the Divorce||477|
|The Drowned Woman||488|
|The Playwright and the Blond Actress: The Seduction||493|
|"Dancing in the Dark"||538|
|The Mystery. The Obscenity||543|
|The (American) Showgirl 1957||563|
|The Kingdom by the Sea||571|
|The Afterlife 1959-1962|
|Sugar Kane 1959||613|
|The Collected Works of Marilyn Monroe||639|
|My House. My Journey||681|
|The President's Pimp||685|
|The Prince and the Beggar Maid||688|
|The Beggar Maid in Love||692|
|The President and the Blond Actress: The Rendezvous||699|
|"Happy Birthday Mr. President"||717|
|Special Delivery 3 August 1962||723|
|"We Are All Gone Into the World of Light"||727|
Reading Group Guide
A lush-bodied girl in the prime of her physical beauty. In an ivory georgette crepe sundress with a halter top that gathers her breasts up in soft undulating folds of fabric. She's standing bare legs apart on a New York subway grating, her blond head is thrown rapturously back as an updraft lifts her full, flaring skirt, exposing white cotton panties. White cotton! The ivory-crepe sundress is floating and filmy as magic. The dress is magic. Without the dress the girl would be female meat, raw and exposed.In her Author's Note, Joyce Carol Oates explains that Blonde is "a radically distilled 'life' in the form of fiction," not a biography of Norma Jean Baker, a.k.a. Marilyn Monroe. In fact, Blonde is perhaps Joyce Carol Oates' most ambitious novel. Opening the book with Norma Jean's early years, Joyce Carol Oates draws a vivid portrait of a child's painful relationship with her mentally ill mother, Gladys, and her longing for a missing father. Oates also chillingly foreshadows, and at the same time makes comprehensible, the tragedy about to unfold. In one instance, star-struck Gladys, showing her young daughter the homes of Hollywood celebrities, comments about Valentino: "He had no talent for acting at all. He had no talent for life. But he was photogenic, and he died at the right time. Remember, Norma Jean -- die at the right time." Then, Norma Jean, vulnerable and haunted by demons, grows into a wildly voluptuous woman. She succeeds as a pin-up, becomes Marilyn Monroe, gets her big break in Niagara, and begins her liaisons with the powerful men who desire and abuse her. Oates deftlyreveals the fragile, gifted actress behind the icon. Yet while acknowledging the art of acting, Oates blasts the cold, destructive beast called Hollywood, and she draws scathing, unforgiving portraits of the famous men in Norma Jean's life, from the ex-athlete who beats her to the President who uses her and tosses her aside. Monumental in its detail and scope, luminescent in its prose, Blonde examines the interior life of a woman, the culture that made her into an icon, and the forces that killed her. Related by a narrator on the brink of extinction, this multi-layered work sweeps the reader along on a tidal wave of emotion to an inevitable end . . . but an end where only Norma Jean dies. Marilyn Monroe and all her glittering movie personas live on. Questions for Discussion-- From Blonde
Joyce Carol Oates, Well-Organized Woman
From the May-June 2001 issue of Book magazine.
Although Joyce Carol Oates enjoys the occasional pay-per-view boxing match, the sixty-two-year-old author doesn't watch a lot of TV. In fact, before it was announced that Oates's 1996 novel We Were the Mulvaneys was the first of Oprah's Book Club picks of 2001, she had never even seen the program. With her schedule, there's not much time for channel surfing. Oates spends her days, and often nights, composing novels, poetry, nonfiction and short-story collections -- she has about seventy books to her name. She also writes plays, essays, and book reviews, edits anthologies and Ontario Review, which she and her husband founded in 1974, and teaches creative writing at Princeton University.
We Were the Mulvaneys has sold hundreds of thousands of copies since its golden seal of approval. This is the first time Oates has reached Number One on the New York Times bestseller list, even though she's been churning out books at an extraordinary pace since winning the National Book Award for her novel them in 1970. But if her work has not sailed to the top of the charts, most of it has been critically acclaimed.
"She's a phenomenon," says poet Daniel Halpern, her editor at Ecco Press. "It makes a lot of people nervous, especially other writers, that she produces so much. But what should make them nervous is not the quantity but the quality of the work that comes out. She amazes me, that book after book is of such a high level."
How could anyone be this productive, particularly considering that she writes everything, novels included, in longhand first before transferring words to type? Oates says she doesn't feel that she is -- she's just well organized.
"My days begin early, and end late," says Oates, who lives in Princeton, New Jersey, with her husband, Raymond Smith, and two cats. She says she is always thinking of her work, no matter what she's doing. In particular, the story ideas really flow while running, walking, and bicycling. "At such times the imagination floats free, and one can contemplate one's work with an almost magical detachment."
Magically detached or not, Oates still manages to have a rich social life. She attends countless campus events, like dance and theater, travels, and seeks out ethnic restaurants. "She's very sociable," says her close friend, feminist scholar and Princeton professor Elaine Showalter, who marvels at her friend's ability to squeeze in the time to entertain. "She throws several large parties a year and smaller dinner parties, and she goes out to a lot of parties," adds Greg Johnson, author of 1998's Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates. "I think it's just that she's a very scheduled and disciplined person whose life is very orderly in the way that most of our lives are not."
While Showalter says that her friend has a wicked sense of humor, Oates exudes a consummate professional's calm, cool demeanor. When she picked up the phone last January and found Oprah Winfrey on the other end, Oates recalls, she wasn't ruffled. "I'm not that emotional," Oates says in her book-filled Princeton office, a movie poster of 1996's Foxfire looming above her head (one of the only movies made from her books). Only the slightest smile betrays her detachment.
Looking at Oates's oeuvre, it's surprising that Winfrey didn't call earlier. In many of her books, Oates has examined how violence can decimate domesticity, particularly in women's lives, a subject Winfrey has been keen on in her selections. From Oates's classic 1966 short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" to 2001's Faithless: Tales of Transgression, she has exposed with sickening realism the danger that can erupt in everyday situations. In 1996's We Were the Mulvaneys, for example, an idyllic family in upstate New York (where Oates grew up) falls apart after their only daughter and sister is raped after a school dance. "I am a chronicler of the American experience," Oates says. "We have been historically a nation prone to violence, and it would be unreal to ignore this fact. What intrigues me is the response to violence: its aftermath in the private lives of women and children in particular."
While Oates may rival other famously prolific authors like Tom Clancy and Danielle Steel in productivity, her narratives are constantly evolving and refuse to gel to any mold. Her characters range anywhere from young schoolgirls and housewives to boxers and rapists to kittens. "She reinvents herself three or four times a year as a writer," Halpern says. "She was a born writer, so she's always had a sense of merit in how to tell a story and draw characters that were different from each other and came alive on the page." He says that the novel Blonde, Oates's 737-page ode to Marilyn Monroe that was a 2000 National Book Award finalist, proves her mastery as a storyteller and reveals her growth as a writer. "The structure of Blonde I don't think she could've written twenty years ago," he says.
The next novel, Middle Age: A Romance, due out in October, takes yet another spin through American existence, but may reflect a kinder, gentler Oates. She suggests that these days she's more idealistic and romantic about writing, and perhaps even about life, than she was decades ago. "Why this is," she says, "I don't know."
She does know that the new novel will be a humorous and loving examination of the lasting friendships of a group of middle-aged men and women. "It's a much more upbeat and positive sort of narrative than people identify with her," Halpern says. "Nothing terrible happens to any of the characters." Well, except for the primary character's drowning at the beginning of the book, he admits, and another character's fatal mauling by his wife's dogs. "Otherwise, it's a happy ending." (Kristin Kloberdanz)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Marilyn became a legend because of her beauty and sex appeal. But the real girl-woman couldn't compete with herself. She never found true peace and happiness. Always it was her body and looks she perceived as her only asset, although there is evidence that she was a very intelligent woman. Locked within herself, with a lack of self esteem she was always on a collision course with herself which ultimately led to her untimely death. Joyce Carol Oates writes this book so powerfully you think you are actually living Marilyn's life.
This was a totally absorbing, riveting book. Never had much interest in Marilyn Monroe before, but I sure do now! The author, I presume, loosely based the narrative on actual facts of the star's life, and I want to believe that many of the details--although enhanced--are grounded in fact. (A check on her biography confirms that many of the events brought out in the book are true.) Norma (aka Marilyn) is revealed as a flawed, but totally human, compassionate, sensitive woman. I was shocked at the sadness of her life but glad I got to know this heretofore stereotyped image of the screen star. As always, Joyce Carol Oates delivered. This will rank among my favorites, along with "They Were the Mulvaneys."
I had high hopes for this book; I like Joyce Carol Oates, and the reviews for Blonde were outstanding. Instead, I found myself reading pages and pages of the description of 'Norma Jeane's' first period that sounded like it came straight out of Stephen King's 'Carrie.' Boring, been there done that--the shock of the blood, how men would now be able to sniff her out, blah blah blah. There was also nothing new in the descriptions of life in the orphanage, life in foster homes. Wondering why everyone made such a fuss over this snoozer.
Not up to Oats' speed. Seemed like typical trashy sensationalism.
This book really showed you how Marilyn must have been in her days. She talks about her childhood years as a foster child. The story talks of her all her marriages and shows how mentally unstable she was. A good read.
Powerful and enthralling fictionalized account of Marilyn Monroe's life and death--very very sad. I'm reading some bios. of her to try to figure out what's true--factually. But this version is true in the way that great art is true. Once again, Oates amazes me.
The story of this book is compelling; the narrative is compulsively readable. However, this is a NOVEL. What parts are true? What parts are made up in Oates's head? Does it matter? It does to me. I don't understand the fictionalizing of a real person's life. I think it's wrong. If a biographer gets something wrong or has a skewed agenda, then it can be argued in a review or another biography can be written. But this this is "fiction"--so where do you go to "fix" Oates's vision of this woman's real life? I got about halfway through this book and gave up on it.
Blonde, is a sensitive interpretation of Norma Jean Mortenson¿s (Marilyn Monroe) inner-self as it was shaped and influenced by her life experiences. This portrayal, by Joyce Carol Oates, is intended to show Hollywood¿s iconic star as she was ¿a real person affected by dysfunctional life experiences that started at birth and ended with her premature death, at 36. Her outer mystic is peeled away to expose a spiritual life that yearned for what everyone deserves, unconditional love and acceptance. This makes Norma Jean¿s life all the more tragic. She was not a dumb blond, but a self-educated and motivated individual who sought for, but never discovered, who she was.
I found this book to be shockingly good. Only as a fictionalized biography, could Oates have gotten under the skin of Norma Jean and the people in her life the way she did. I want to go back and see all of her movies again, read more about her life and after an interval of needed rest from the sadness of this book, read Norman Mailer's biography of Monroe. Thank you Joyce Carol Oates for writing this book.
Certainly a wonderful mix of research and creative thought, but I was tremendously disappointed with the final section of the book -- especially the way Oates chose to handle Monroe's death. My first experience reading Oates.
Mesmerizing. Gives a voice to Monroe that she likely never had.
Joyce Carol Oates is one hell of a writer, so she was not daunted by the idea of tackling the life of Marilyn Monroe. She lays it all out on the page, being a bit coy with actual names but anyone can tell what or whom she is referring to. Oates gets behind (or underneath) the facade of this enigmatic movie star, and leaves the reader with a feeling of understanding, empathy, and pity for Marilyn. Marilyn's childhood and desperate clawing to the top of filmdom are described in detail, and her marriages (with DiMaggio and Arthur Miller)make sense, for once. The addictions to pills and the behavioral quirks of her late career are also sympathetically explained.
Excellent service, highly recomended
Joyce is an amazing writer, she turns her novels and everything else she writes into an unforgettable piece of work. Blonde is her personal version of the woman who came to be known as Marilyn Monroe. This book is much more than the superficial tid-bits that the gossip column produces, it reaches into the depths of who she really was and what were some of the events that made Marilyn the kind of woman she was. From childhood to failed relationships and fame this book has a little of everything, you will soon be feeling that it's actually true and not a work of fiction. Although a bit of a lengthy book, it is well worth the effort. Once you get started it will be hard to put this book down, so go ahead get in a guilty pleasure pick up this book- believe me it's better than the tabloid magazines everyone is drawn to at the check out lanes!
I could not put this book down! I have always loved Joyce Carol Oates but was slightly wary of reading an entire novel of hers as opposed to the short stories that I am used to. Once I began this novel about 'Marilyn,' however, I could not stop! Oates takes you into the world of 'Marilyn' in such a way that, when you do manage to put the book down, your mind is racing just like Norma's does. You become completly engrossed in the life of the woman that became 'Marilyn Monroe.' I loved this book and suggest that everyone with a love for this famous and infamous actress read it.
I really enjoyed this book. It was very well written and you come away feelign like you really knew Norma Jeane, and how she wasn't all abotu sex and money at all, which is what most people like to think. And despite what one critci has said of this novel it is not all about sex, there is no more sex in it than in any other adult book. It really engrossed me and I'd read for such long stretches of time I'd come away with a tension headache, and a little confused about who I was because I got so into the character of Norma Jeane.
Excellent book! I love the way JCO writes, jumbled, and the story was enticing! I would just like to comment, though, that if anyone should give a book review, they should try reading the entire book first and not just read the first few chapters. There is no way anyone could make a good book review like that.
This is one of the best books I've ever read! It's stunning. Joyce Carol Oates creates a kind of mytical atmosphere in this book, something that makes its sometimes very raw and merciless bits of reality stand out even more. And the way she is treated by men... This is a book that can tell you somthing abouty people: how little we really know about each other, and that someone's outsides can be so totally different from their insides. We never really know each other. My heart aches with the Marilyn of this book. How close she comes to the real Marilyn I guess we'll never know, but it seems real. Perhaps even too real. This Norma Jean/Marilyn is such a lonely and desperate person. That was something that struck me: she was always alone, her whole life. Always alone. I guess we all are, in a way. Every man an island, as they say, and in her case it was very true. ...............If you have anything to say to me about this book, please email me.
"Blond" is one of the best books I ever read!! I felt so close with Norma Jean, and so it seemed I could feel her pain. Norma Jean Baker was a very talented person, but sadly, so many people took advantage of her. She is my idol. The author of this book told Norma Jean's life struggle with a lot of dignity!
A life filled with so many struggles, disappointments, heartaches and turmoil unfolded right in front of me. I now have a new appreciation for the woman behind the mask of Marilyn Monroe!
Fascination with Marilyn, and a love the author's previous books led me to get this off my shelf and read it. Full of imagined details of Norma Jeane's life, the book puts a realistic spin on a fairy tale, or perhaps, a nightmare existence. I recommend it, not to everyone, because it is over 700 pages, but if you like Marilyn, read it.