Blonde – Joyce Carol Oates

The rereading continues: 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 published in 2000 and I first read it in 2002. The book was a bestseller and 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 book; 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: 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 an 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.


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