The rereading continues. I have recently raced through A Confederacy of Dunces (one of the funniest books ever written), Lolita (a masterclass in style), and Disturbing the Peace (a harrowing account of a man descending into alcoholism and madness).
After all that I took Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates out of the bookshelves, one of the books on the Ten Favourite Books list. Blonde was first published in 2000 and I first read it in 2002. The book was a bestseller and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Oates herself thinks that this is one of the two books that she will be remembered for; a serious statement given that she has published over forty novels, as well as plays, short stories, poetry and non-fiction. (Anyone else feel like an underachiever?)
Blonde is a fictionalised account of the life of Marilyn Monroe and it’s a whopper of a novel; the edition I have comes in at almost 1,000 pages. Even the most superficial fan of Monroe knows the history of her life and these familiar events are explored in the book. Oates writes about Marilyn’s chaotic childhood, her film experiences, failed romantic relationships and miscarriages, and above all her desire to break out of her one-note bombshell persona.
Given that this is a fictional memoir, Oates writes from Marilyn’s perspective and this is where the book becomes exceptional. Through Oates’ eyes Marilyn becomes a real person, not just a fluffy sexy two-dimensional film star. Blonde creates a completely authentic reality for Monroe and also shines a light on little known relationships such as the ménage à trois between Monroe, Charles Chaplin Junior and Eddy Robinson Junior. One of the last chapters, ‘Special Delivery, 3 August 1962′, is a powerful imagining of Monroe’s death that sent shivers up my spine the first time I read it.
Blonde could have been a voyeuristic tabloid disaster in another writer’s hands but Oates’ extraordinary talent transforms it into an empathetic exploration of an eternally fascinating woman. Marilyn will be an inspiration for the ages; a woman who was ahead of her time, a tragic figure who craved long lasting love and never seemed to find it, and a talented actress who was just finding her way when she died. Blonde is perhaps one of the best works inspired by her and it’s a phenomenal book on its own terms too.
Here’s a famous interview with the woman herself recorded a month before her death. Monroe is honest on the subjects of sex, fame, and her experiences of the Hollywood system, and I find it interesting that her real life voice is more assured and adult and animated than the breathy child-woman voice we hear in her movies.