Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates

Though I have a lot of good things to say about Blonde, I must confess it’s the novel that broke me. I read it as part of my ill-advised feature-writer series about Joyce Carol Oates. The feature-writer series was a short-lived program I started in 2019, where I would focus on one writer a month and review a sample of his or her canon. It’s a great idea—I still believe so—but it wasn’t suited for how I work. As I featured Edgar Allan Poe, a writer I’m well-versed in, it was successful, but it began to fall apart when I turned my attention to Sylvia Plath, who I’ve never read before. I muscled through a month of Plath’s work, but it was painful. Painful for the writer, no doubt, translated into painful for the reader. Since she died via suicide, everything I read sounded like an extended suicide note. It was too depressing. Here and there—Plath’s writing is meaningful literature. But an entire month of it proved to be an overdose of despair. 

So I was happy when the month ended, and I turned my attention to Joyce Carol Oates as my next feature writer. Here’s someone who deserves attention! Oates is one of the most prolific writers in contemporary America. Prolific writers tend to be genre writers, like Stephen King in horror, but Oates is a literary writer. Yet she had published a book almost every year since her writing career began. That’s a feat worth distinction! Since there was no way I could read everything she had written in a month, I had to contend myself to a carefully selected sample. I chose the novels and short stories and began reading. Unfortunately, I started with the most ambitious book on my list, Blonde, and it took me so long to read it that it prevented me from reading anything else. 

It broke me. If you follow my blog, you know that from September 29, 2019 until February 2, 2020, I failed to post new articles. My failure—and failure is the right word—to convert the feature-writer series into an ongoing program caused a crisis in confidence, a type of writer’s block, and it forced me to re-evaluate what I want to accomplish with this blog. I even doubted whether I wanted to continue it. Unfortunately, Blonde is connected to this; it’s not the novel’s fault, and it’s not Joyce Carol Oates’ fault. It’s my fault. Specifically, it lies in my decision to start the feature-writer series. Another blogger would’ve made that project work, but it didn’t fit well into my workflow. 

It’s the bane of my existence that, though I love to read, I am a slow reader. When I buy a book on my Kindle, Amazon tells me how long the average reader takes to finish it. If the time is ten hours, say, I estimate I’ll need fifteen to twenty hours to read it. I’m that much slower than the average reader. Blonde, a long novel—over seven-hundred pages in the Kindle edition—took me three weeks to read. If I were reading it just for pleasure, that would’ve been fun. But since I was reading it to write about it in my blog, it became a chore. And no one likes doing chores!

But enough about me. Let’s look at the novel.

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 driivng inland, away from Venice Bench and the ocean. North of 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 where 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.”

Blonde is a fictional biography about Norma Jeane Baker, better known as Marilyn Monroe. It begins with her as a young girl, living with her mother, Gladys, and it follows her through her movie career, her marriages, her love affairs, and her death. As ambitious as it was for me to read it, that pales to the ambition Oates felt in writing it. It’s a well-researched and creative novel. Oates considers it one of her finest. When asked what three novels of her she would want an unfamiliar reader to read, she named Blonde as the top choice. 

I love long novels, novels that tell the life of their protagonist from childhood to death, and that is what Blonde does with Marilyn Monroe. Often, doing the reading, I wondered where fact ended and fiction began, but I resisted performing any research about Monroe until I finished the novel. I wanted to know Oates’ fictional biographer before I knew the factual biography. I often say that I prefer fiction to reality, and my simple definition of fiction is finding truth with lies. Oates’ narration, I believe, gives a better understanding of what it meant to be Marilyn Monroe than the Wikipedia article could hope to achieve. Even now, I haven’t done that research. Though I know Oates took a lot of liberties—poetic license—with the biography, I trust she captured Marilyn’s essence. 

In the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s rape conviction, Blonde could be the bible for the Me Too movement. It tells the story of Hollywood’s exploration of Norma Jeane Baker. There are many ugly scenes as producers, directors, photographers, and other men take advantage of the fame-hungry woman. Otto Öse, a photographer, convinced her to pose nude for the famous (or infamous) pictures of Marilyn Monroe. He sold them for profit to a company that used them in a calendar and also made money. Later, Hugh Hefner purchased them to launch his magazine, leading to his fortune. But Öse paid Norma Jeane only $50. And that’s arguable is the most innocent compromise she had to make in her quest to worldwide fame. Even after she achieved that fame, the powerful men around her had the better deal.

That, of course, alludes to the theme. Blonde is a feminist novel about the way men profit on women, how they use them, abuse them, and discard them when their usefulness ends. Control seems the right word. Who controls Marilyn’s life? She struggles to be the primary controller of her life and career—and even enjoys some success at it—but the men are the real decision-makers. Another theme explores the nature of identity, especially self-identify, as the protagonist struggles between the activities she wanted for Norma Jeane and those she needed for Marilyn. A third theme focuses on relationships. Blonde explores her relationships with her mother, her absent father, her foster parents, her husbands, and other lovers—including the president. It also goes into detail about the relationships she has with the directors and actors she worked with on set. My favorite passages in Blonde are the filming passages when she’s working on a film. They reveal to us a Marilyn Monroe committed to being the best actress she could be, one dedicated to her craft. 

Norma Jeane was pleading, “Why’s it so important? A nude photo? Of just me? Did you ever see those photos of the Nazi death camps? Or of Hiroshima, Nagasaki? Piles of corpses like lumber? Little children and babies too.” Norma Jeane shuddered. Her words were upsetting her more than she’d intended. This was all unscripted, and she was getting unmoored. “That’s something to be upset about. That’s pornography. Not some sad dumb broad desperate for fifty dollars.”

Blonde is a great novel; it’s well worth reading. I understand why Oates considers it one of her best. It’s unfortunate that it got tied into my troubles with the feature-writer series. But I know I will reread this novel—perhaps later this year, maybe next year—and I also know that I will read the other books I selected by Joyce Carol Oates. She’s one of the most talented and important writers of our time. I need to know more about her work.  

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