Like the films of Oliver Stone, the fiction of Joyce Carol Oates is a slippery alloy of art and politics. And because Oates is so good at mimicking reality, we sometimes nearly forget she's always trying to teach us a lesson. In her worst novels, such as the abominable My Heart Laid Bare, she smothers her characters with the wet blanket of polemic. On the surface, Blonde (Ecco), Oates's gargantuan novel about Marilyn Monroe, seems ripe for this same flaw. It is too long and packed to the gills with Oates's rage over the state of womanhood. In spite of all this--or perhaps because of it--the novel is a triumph of angry artistry, an eviscerating tale about the injustices of being a woman.
Oates uses our salacious curiosity about her celebrity subject to keep us reading. As we gobble up the dirt, though, Oates is building a subtle interior life for her heroine. The effect is cumulative, and takes a long time to develop. But then Oates has plenty of time: The novel is 750 pages and the print is tiny. Indeed, reading the chapter heads (from "Can't Get Enough Polish Sausage" to "The Playwright and the Blond Actress: The Seduction"), we experience a certain impatience with the book's slow pace and judicious attention to each period of Monroe's life. In the middle of the first section, "The Child," it's hard not to yearn for young Norma Jean to reach womanhood already. This reaction is not quite a flaw of the novel, but rather indicative of Oates's sly strategy: to reveal that the Marilyn of the silver screen who appears later in these pages--beautiful, impenetrable--was not born a full-blown sexpot.
But Oates gradually wears us down. And by dint of the novel's feverish, third-person narration, we find ourselves skittering along the edge of Monroe's thoughts from the good times to the bad. We are there when Monroe's mother is finally sent away to a mental institution and we are there when Monroe divorces her first husband. This chronological telling might, on the surface, seem a little unimaginative. It's actually a shrewd choice, as it manipulates us into believing we are reading about the true Marilyn, and not a mere fictional creation--a receptacle for Oates's rhetorical agenda. What emerges is a brilliant, hopelessly naive woman who is all too trusting of the men in her life--shadowy figures who traipse across these pages like ghosts.
On top of dramatizing the emotional fallout of these relationships, Oates captures the inhumane dissonance between Monroe's image and her internal life, and how the power of the former (which she was well aware of) actually imprisoned her. Even as men swoon for Monroe and her voluptuous body, there is something hateful, and resentful, in their affection. Thus, there is some irony in the fact that it is through Monroe's body that Oates most successfully enters her heroine. From the novel's first chapter to its breathy climax, Oates lingers unrelentingly on Monroe's curves, her hips, her heart-shaped ass and storied breasts. She is forever dressing and undressing Monroe, recording (like a tabloid) the details of her expensive gowns, her short shorts, the dresses so tight they had to be stitched on.
But it doesn't stop there. Oates is like a makeup artist revealing what goes on behind the scenes of making "Marilyn," and, by association, the prevailing body image women still confront today. There is the purple peroxide paste Monroe uses to bleach her pubic hair, the cakes and cakes of makeup applied to her face after a nighttime row with her ball-player husband, and the bruises endured from being sewn into a rhinestone dress to sing "Happy Birthday" to her cock-happy president.
Through this meditation on the rapacious drive to possess Monroe's body, Blonde becomes more than just a clever experiment in historical fiction. It is Oates's most hard-hitting assessment of the cruel and unfair paradox of femininity: When a woman makes herself up to be attractive, she masks part of herself in the process. When, in the novel's climactic finish, Monroe is nailed to the floor by more than just another greedy man's prick, we have nothing left of Norma Jean Baker to mourn for. She was lost to "Marilyn" a long time ago.