Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Summer Reading: Blonde

I like big books in the summer. I don't necessarily read more. I read a lot all year round, but there's something about a hefty tome in the summertime.
I finished The Godfather and now I'm reading Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates, a great American novel that fictionalizes (somewhat) the life of Norma Jeane Baker, better known as that sacrificial goddess of the American pantheon, Marilyn Monroe.
It is often chosen as the favorite and best of Oates's wide-ranging oeuvre. After years of research she attacked the project obsessively, and brings "Marilyn" to life in great detail. The book is epic in scope; I'm one third in, and she has just been given her new name by her agent, as her small, scene-stealing role in The Asphalt Jungle catapults her to fame.
Who's the blonde?
The book explores the specifics of Norma's life with her paranoid schizophrenic mother, who claims her father is a studio star (his identity was never proven) but also serves as a historic record for what it was like being a girl and a woman in mid-century America, which is not so great. Norma wants more than other women. Like many, she enjoyed the meaningful work in defense factories during the war, only to be thrown away afterward when men came back and needed those jobs. Oates uses repetitive phrases like she's smooth as a silk purse down there as a revolting leitmotif, to show how girls are sexualized from birth. By the time Norma is twelve, the piano teacher has stuck his tongue in her ear, and by fifteen her foster mother doesn't like how her husband is looking at their ward, and plots to get her married so she'll be "safe."
Out of the frying pan, into the fire. Her husband is immature and emotionally illiterate, and chooses to join the war effort rather than accept that she has any agency; he forces her to pose nude, and carries the photos around to show her off like the head of an eight point buck in his den. Her earnest innocence is forever mistaken for empty-headed naivete, and she takes acting more seriously than anyone expects her to. They expect and want her to ride on her looks, and never see her as a person. You're not that dumb a blonde, stop acting like it.

When writers tell me they "can't get into" Joyce Carol Oates's style, I always ask, "Which one?" She's written everything from Gothics to serial killer novels, stream of consciousness, and her own deceptively readable prose, which switches from addressing the reader like a Greek chorus, third-person omniscient, third person limited, first person, interspersed with italic passages of thoughts and dialogue whispered from the peanut gallery, the American version of a Greek chorus. When I first encountered this style in Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang, I found it confusing and tilted, but once I took it as multiple viewpoints and the criticisms of the little-minded around us, rather like Orson Welles did with the camera stopping during narrated sequences to hear what the locals had to say in The Magnificent Ambersons, it made more sense and became easier to read. It can be hard to keep up--Oates often writes in a whirlwind of ideas with asides in parentheses, but it makes for a rich tapestry of thoughts and pictures, for she works out the secret fears and sneers we never share in public.

I'm only a third through Blonde and I need to put it down to review another of her books, the Hard Case Crime reissue of The Triumph of the Spider Monkey, which at first glance seems to be like her masterpiece Zombie, a hellride in the head of a psychopath. She's one of the most consistently daring writers, criticized for fictionalizing everything from Marilyn Monroe to JonBenet Ramsey and Jeffrey Dahmer, but what else do writers do? I think it's more honest the way she does it, rather than trying to conceal the true-life inspirations. In one scene in Blonde, a young "Bob Mitchum" tears up the nudie photos that Norma's husband is showing his coworkers, saying "what kind of man does that to his wife?" Is it true? Rumor? Fantasy?
Does it matter? It was thrilling to read and wish were true. As Oates's late second husband Charlie Gross said of another insertion of a real-life person into a story, "who cares? it's fiction."

No comments: