Blonde

03/09/2018

Blonde

Blonde is almost a thousand pages long in the Fourth Estate paperback and an unequivocal account of Marilyn Monroe without quite passing for a biography. It is a work of literature rather than of research, with Joyce Carol Oates saying “I’d hoped to evoke a poetic, spiritual, “inner” truth”, and insists she did not do “considerable research” (Prairie Schooner) It is instead an autobiography of the dead, ghostwritten, with Oates trying to find her way into the mind of Norma Jeane Baker/Marilyn Monroe. It is a work of interiority rather than exteriority and this requires the skills not of the logistical tabulator of life experience, but the novelist who wants to put together the emotional reality of somebody’s life. We would make very poor biographers of our own existence as we so often settle for the approximate over the precise: our childhoods, for example, are a jumble of impressions, of imprecisions, yet they are held together by a consciousness giving them a contiguous place, allowing us to marshal them according to various emotional and psychological needs in the present. Even in therapy, we wouldn’t be expected to remember our past with biographical accuracy; simply to give it a fuller context in relation to the impact events have had on our lives.

Blonde is in this sense a work of self-analysis without the self, or rather with a self Oates perceives almost subjunctively, and from a certain point of view even a feminist work. One day Oates was looking at a photograph of a seventeen-year-old Norma Jean Baker and saw in her girls she remembered from her own youthful years, young women from broken homes. “For days I almost felt a sense of rapturous excitement, that I might give life to this lost, lone girl, whom the iconic consumer product Marilyn Monroe would soon overwhelm and obliterate.” (Prairie Schooner) Oates explores what it means to create a schizophrenia that can split a personality in two positively, with Monroe the successful split personality her mother failed to become. While her beautiful mum would like to have appeared on the silver screen and ended up instead in a mental home, Marilyn Monroe’s schizophrenia manifested itself as celebrity: a persona she could turn on and off but that never gave her the basic security of an integrated self. She became the ultimate example of the star as split personality: the dark-haired Norma Jean and the platinum blonde Marilyn Monroe who didn’t change her name until 1956, well into her years as one of the world’s most famous names while still being acknowledged by many who knew her as the name she was christened with. Oates’s book works from this schism, seeing in the mother what the daughter could easily become as if great beauty wasn’t only about taking you places (Hollywood) but keeping you out of them too (the ‘funny farm’). “Mother once said Fear is born of hope”, Monroe thinks to herself, but hope within the context of the American dream that always threatens to be an American nightmare is the balm that can keep the anxiety in abeyance. After all, Monroe had been “a welfare kid…a ward of L.A. county placed with a foster family on Reseda Street, Van Nuys, a street of shabby bungalows and grassless yards and her foster father owned a half acre of used cars, trucks, motorcycles, and other junk for sale…” But while hope might be able to reduce fear, can success ever conquer poverty as Monroe seemed a pretty good example of taking the girl out of the street but never quite taking the street out of the girl. As Oates explores the trajectory of Monroe’s emotional life in this fictional account that can move from the breathlessly personal to the paranoiacally distant, Norma Jeane moves from her teen love from home to Joe Di Maggio, Arthur Miller and finally the president. We see a woman moving up in the world but accumulating a feeling of vertigo as she finds no firm ground. If for her mother the lower she fell the more precarious her mental health became, for Monroe the greater the celebrity, the more success she had, the closer she came to collapse. At the end of the book, Monroe sings for JFK on his birthday, and Oates has one of the president’s buddies nudging him in the ribs saying, “hope she fucks better than she sings Prez and the witty Prez muttered around his cigar. No but, fucking her, you don’t have to listen to her sing, which cracked up everybody in the box.”

It is the high point of her career that could be seen as the low point for her ego, and one thinks of a piece of short fiction, ‘Idolatory’, by Sherman Alexei. about a Native American Indian woman who gets the opportunity to sing at a pop idol contest. She chooses Patsy Cline, well aware that all her friends and family thinks she is a very good singer. She sings and after the first verse the British judge tells her to stop: she should never sing again. Of course she is mortified; she has been exposed in front of millions and recalls how often she had sung in front of others who told her she was good. The story closes on the line “in this world, we must love the liars or go unloved.” It is an ambiguous line that could seem cynical or just the opposite. Is it not often the liars who do love us as they praise our attributes simply as a means by which to praise our essence? They know that we might not be the best in the world but we are the most important to them, and they convey it in their enthusiasm for mediocrity that with their love turns base metal into gold. This never happened to Monroe, with a mother who would constantly criticise and wouldn’t even acknowledge her status even when she was a superstar. “For that is what love is. A protection from harm.” Oates says. “If there is harm there was inadequate love.” Monroe was box-office gold emotionally treated as base metal.

There is no doubt that Monroe’s was a life of inadequate love. “My work is the only ground I’ve ever had to stand on. I seem to have a whole superstructure with no foundation — but I’m working on the foundation.” (In Her Own Words) That is a paradox which is perhaps an impossibility: how does one retrospectively work on the foundations, and did Monroe mean by this that she would focus on the work through more technical means, as she would go along to the Actor’s Studio? Her past need “not destroy her; it might yet become part of the vocabulary and technique of a new art …” Lee Strasberg said, quoted in Donald Spoto’s biography, Marilyn Monroe. Or it could equally mean that she would find in her personal life the love she couldn’t find in her childhood. Men like Joe di Maggio and Arthur Miller loved her very much, but there would have seemed to be in such love, and in the love many others offered Monroe as well, an attempt not only to love but to excavate, or operate on, the non-love within her. It was as though it wasn’t enough to love greatly in the present, one’s love would somehow need to find its way into the fold of Monroe’s past too.

No man could quite do that, which is perhaps why Oates pays so much attention to letters Monroe’s father writes, as though suggesting that the only man in her life who might have been able to provide the foundations remained a wish rather than a reality as she tried tpo find it in constant encounters in her adulthood. But Di Maggio was never going to be subtle enough for Monroe, and Miller too neurotic for a woman who would constantly become infatuated with others as everyone would become infatuated with her. Di Maggio, Oates tells us through Marilyn’s consciousness, “the Ex-Athlete was claiming he loved her, he’d never loved any woman as he loved her, he wanted to marry her. On their second date already, before even they’d become lovers. Was it possible? A man so famous, so kind and generous and a gentleman, wanted to marry her?” Miller’s “heart was stricken with love of her. Why, she was just a child, as dependent upon him as one of your own children.”

Perhaps the only cure for such a life without foundations is not to seek love but to demand fame: it will never satisfy the need for love, but fame will allow for the insatiable appetite for affection that Monroe managed to emanate into the auditorium. In Alexai’s story, there will be no fame but there will be love. The girl walks off the stage and into the arms of her mother. Marilyn could only walk off the stage and into the arms of another man, who would not love her unconditionally. No matter the love shown, would it not always be conditioned by the love previously not shown? So in some ways, she always remained on the stage. Oates opens the chapter where Di Maggio falls in love with Monroe with a line from Stanislavski: “always you must play yourself. But it will be an infinite variety.” In an interview with Time magazine, Oates would say, “I think that Monroe is a representative American of a time, a place, a category of being, with whom virtually anyone can identify.” Oates adds: “she had to be seductive to everyone. It was like a compulsion. A woman who doesn’t especially care what other people think of her, whose sense of self is strong, from within, would not try so hard to please. The very notion of bleaching one’s hair platinum blond, wearing so much makeup and squeezing into tight dresses, would not appeal to many, perhaps most women.” Monroe may have belatedly gone to study with Lee Strasberg in New York, but she was always a Method actress. Instead, though of turning her personal conflicts into the role she was playing, she instead turned her life into the role that she would consistently play: the individual roles in Bus Stop, The Seven Year Itch, Niagara and Some Like it Hot are but subsidiaries of Marilyn Monroe.

This, of course, is true of many stars who aspire to, or find themselves with, a status close to that of an icon: John Wayne, Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. But Monroe’s iconic status seemed to get caught between the vulnerability she couldn’t hide and the persona she couldn’t retreat from. Few actresses have appeared needier than Monroe in a profession that is not known for its fortitude. Painters and novelists can be their own men or women, but the actor is always somebody else’s muse, a pliable object turning into an emotional subject as the filmmaker turns a block of flesh into a character. The actor is exposing him or herself constantly as they reveal varying degrees of fragility, while rarely having much agency. This might not be so great an issue if the actor is also their own director as Chaplin happened to be, or their iconic status contrary to their own biographies. John Wayne may have represented more than anyone the American hero, but even the director with whom he was most associated, John Ford, commented on his absence from service during WWII. As Gary Wills notes, Ford once suggested: “Duke, can’t you manage a salute that at least looks like you’ve been in the service.” (John Wayne: The Politics of Celebrity) In Monroe there was the sense that her life and her work weren’t that far apart – even if the roles she played weren’t autobiographical; they were nevertheless vulnerable. It is a particular type of vulnerability that Oates assesses in her comment above, the sort that demands she always looked her best no matter if she felt her worst. There is an obligation to play to the crowd but also to acknowledge that within that crowd everybody is an individual with their own despair, and none more so than the person playing to it.

This makes the star not only resemble the Gods, as we find in numerous accounts of stardom that understandably muse over the ways in which the modern era generates people whom we can identify with as we might have looked towards Zeus, Aphrodite, Apollo and Athena, but with the added dimension of the psychoanalytic. Cinema coincided with the development of psychoanalysis, but we needn’t see this as the necessity of psychoanalytic film theory (which developed in the sixties and seventies); more that the psychoanalytic became an aspect of the performance in the post-war years, a point played up in Monroe’s final film The Misfits, with the movie manifestly exploring the vulnerabilities and frailties of its leading actors: Monroe, Montgomery Clift and Clark Gable. In Blonde, Oates says, “there’s a curse on the actor, always you are seeking an audience. And when the audience sees your hunger it’s like smelling blood. Their cruelty begins” as Oates explores the making of the film in fiction form. This is the cruelty of the audience where the actor no longer functions as a God but a figure of sacrifice, and Oates’ book is an attempt to move from one to the other while always underpinning it with a sense of inevitability. Monroe could never have survived her childhood; she could only exploit it, taking full advantage of the traumatic to allow for the dramatic. Near the end of the book, the president says to her, “there’s something in you none of them has, MARILYN. No woman I know. You’re alive to be touched. To be breathed on like a flame. Alive to be hurt, even!” Adoration can be a certain type of threat as indifference is not. A Monroe who would have ignored her childhood, played down her beauty and never made it on to the screen might have been able to ignore the childhood neglect, as if the ideal for well-being is love by those close to us in childhood followed by the crowd’s indifference in adulthood, rather like the character in Alexei’s story. But indifference in childhood that leads to adulation in adulthood would seem both voracious and vicarious: one wishes for the love that was absent and somehow can never quite turn it into presence. Stardom becomes the means by which one has it all and at the same time has nothing. Throughout the book, Oates keeps returning to Monroe’s mother in the mental institute, looking both to receive the love that hadn’t been there when Marilyn was young, while wary of the press reporting on her lunatic mother. On one visit where she is thinking of relocating to New York and studying with Lee Strasberg, she says “Mother, I love you but you hurt me so. Please don’t hurt me, Mother. I realize you aren’t well but can’t you try?”

Of course, more and more people are at the mercy of the review, and at the same time, we are not simply expected to have an active employment life that keeps the CV in good shape, but also our private lives too as social media draws few distinctions between work and leisure. A few Facebook photos from years ago become part of the accumulated information an employer might have to hand. If Warhol so famously and astutely suggested we would all soon be famous for fifteen minutes, then the star was the precursor to this invasion of self. Now many people receive performance assessments at work, too, but again, the star was expected to receive such reviews and in the public context after each film. Anyone who does not have the basis of healthy affection initially might regard such tests as containing more significance than is humanly useful – positively or negatively. The combination of Monroe’s terrible childhood and that the actor was often expected to be more revealing of their faults and foibles (out of the Method) meant that Marilyn appeared much more vulnerable than any star before her. She was the halfway house halfway through the century between the star who has it all and the star from whom all is taken. The problem with being a superstar is that you are the sum total of the divided affection received. In other words, we might expect the undivided love of a husband or partner, but celebrity is a certain type of polyamory: one has to be loved by many – the box-office demands it. Obviously, many a star will deal with this by acknowledging their commodity status. They know their audience demographically and generically and don’t assume that love has anything to do with it.

Yet Monroe played up, or couldn’t easily play down, her vulnerability, needed to feel that she wasn’t a star who people wanted to watch, but someone people wanted to love. “I can’t memorize the words by themselves. I have to memorize the feelings” Marilyn thinks in Blonde, as though the difference between the star as commodity and the star who wishes to be loved is that the commodified star knows they don’t have to project feelings into the role, they just have to convey feelings out of words. It is the words that matter. But Monroe wanted to see acting perhaps as a risk: that to memorise a few lines didn’t raise the stakes very high and in this area we could see why Oates, fascinated by boxing, would also be interested in Monroe. When Oates says “it cannot be a coincidence that everyone’s favourite boxing novel, Leonard Gardner’s Fat City, is a novel less about boxing than about the strategies of self-deception: handbook of sorts in failure, in which boxing functions as the natural activity of men totally unequipped to comprehend life.” (On Boxing) It might echo a little Truman Capote’s remark about Monroe: “this beautiful child is without any concept of discipline or sacrifice. Somehow I don’t think she’ll make old bones.” (Music for Chameleons) Failing to make old bones or damaging one’s knuckles and destroying one’s looks fall loosely into the same problem: the issue of taking risks.

We might wonder too whether Oates is taking risks as well. The writer who moves into the factual within the fictional can do so in one of two obvious ways: towards the autobiographically revealing or the biographically exhaustive. They can attend to their own existence and those around them, or they can explore a life that has no direct contact to their own. In the former instances lies the shame that you can heap on yourself and your loved ones; in the latter the risk of a court case when people in your work don’t like what you have said about them. Emmanuel Carrere writes very well of the problems concerning the former. “To write bad things about yourself…it’s like Massu using the generator on himself. You decide yourself when you’re going to stop. When you write about others, there’s a huge responsibility. For my part, I have used the generator on people other than myself. And that bothers me. I don’t like that idea. “(New York Times) Concerning the latter, the website Write Hacked says: “If you wait until the person is dead before you write about them, you may have some added protection. In many states, the right of publicity and claims for defamation die when the person dies. That is not true in all states, however. The right of publicity exists after death and for the benefit of heirs in the state of California, for instance, where Hollywood has a strong legislative lobby.” The former indicates the problem of guilt; the latter the issue of law. One might risk the latter over the former if for no better reason than if you can get away with writing a book about a famous personage one is unlikely to feel too much remorse in the wake of doing so. But writing a book about those close to us can lead to later hauntings, to a sense that a friend or family member’s unhappiness could be linked to what we have written about them.

Yet sometimes the ethical can come back to haunt the non-fictional, as some may believe was the case with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Andrew O’Hagan (who himself wrote a superb non-fiction work The Missing) addresses the question in the LRB. He quotes Kenneth Tynan saying “ ‘We are talking…about responsibility. For the first time an influential writer in the front rank has been placed in a privileged intimacy with criminals about to die and, in my view, done less than he might have to save them … No piece of prose, however deathless, is worth a human life.’ O’Hagan also mentions the composer Ned Rorem saying, “Capote got two million and his heroes got the rope. That book … was completed before the deaths of Smith and Hickock: yet, had they not died, there would have been no book.” If some saw Capote pushing his real-life protagonists towards their grave, Oates would seem to be trying to bring Monroe back to life, taking into account our initial remarks. It would have none of the ethical problems evident in Capote’s book but nevertheless shares with it an appropriative dimension. It is as if everyone wants to be famous in American and thus a person’s privacy would seem to be secondary to another’s entitlement to expose. Oates’ ethical conundrum here is to offer yet another exploration of Monroe that wouldn’t simply arrive at exploitation. She does so by trying to give Monroe the voice that was never quite given to her by the publicity machine she was made by and ground down by in equal measure. If there are many lives that a writer dignifies within the context of the anonymity of the subject – giving voice for example to a black slave, a sex worker, a homeless person – how to find the means to give a voice to someone who possesses an enormous public profile? Is there something in American life that generates celebrity and visibility but that minimizes interiority and integrity of self? Was Norma Jean Baker who became Marilyn Monroe the ultimate example of the public American Dream as personal nightmare? Oates’ novel is a suffocating work in some ways, and we don’t mean this pejoratively. If Oates wanted to write a book that would be like a memoir from beyond the grave, we might add that it is written as if from within that grave.

The book opens with the italicised line: “The movie I’ve been seeing all my life, yet never to its completion” but perhaps Monroe’s life never needed a film but a book. It is a common cliché that everybody has a book in them, but maybe what people really mean by this is that they have an interior life that is given so little outer form. The more the culture out of which we come focuses on the external life, on the idea of getting on, making something of oneself, the harder it might be for this book that is our inner life to become manifest. Monroe became the most famous external figure in 20th-century life, but more than most there seemed to be another personality inside that was seeking an outlet. We do not sense this with other icons of the age, like John Wayne, Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant or Audrey Hepburn, and the actor she would most resemble in this context would be one who did manage to be both iconic and expressive – her friend Marlon Brando, who has a key role in the book, referred to as the Dark Prince. If Brando would sometimes question the significance of acting, it resided partly on the difficulty for the actor to express and explore the self in its myriad possibilities, rather than reading out a few lines that would push the story along. One way of looking at the Method is to see that it gives to acting the interiority evident in literature. The actor accesses the self as readily as plays a role; can indeed only play the role after accessing the self. “Acting is the most personal of our crafts”, Strasberg once said. “The make-up of a human being – his physical, mental and emotional habits – influence his acting to a much greater extent than commonly recognized.”

Monroe never quite succeeded in accessing that self; Oates, in an act of humility or arrogance according to taste, tries to do it for her. Is this the modesty of the writer insistently getting into somebody else’s head; or the pompousness of the novelist speaking for others? It is not an easy question to answer but certainly a question that Oates addresses. Working in what is commonly referred to as the non-fiction novel as opposed to the journalistic book, Oates determines to get inside heads, not simply offer a voice to others. Thus, works like Blonde, In Cold Blood, The Executioner’s Song, Notes on a Kidnapping are all works of creativity in Capote’s definition: The Oscar Lewis book is a documentary, a job of editing from tapes, and however skillful and moving, it is not creative writing. “Hiroshima” is creative–in the sense that Hersey isn’t taking something off a tape recorder and editing it–but it still hasn’t got anything to do with what I’m talking about. “Hiroshima” is a strict classical journalistic piece. What is closer is what Lillian Ross did with “Picture.” Or my own book, “The Muses Are Heard”–which uses the techniques of the comic short novel .” (New York Times) Especially when he adds that “if you mean James Breslin and Tom Wolfe, and that crowd, they have nothing to do with creative journalism–in the sense that I use the term–because neither of them, nor any of that school of reporting, have the proper fictional technical equipment. It’s useless for a writer whose talent is essentially journalistic to attempt creative reportage, because it simply won’t work.”

Of course in Capote’s case these were men close to their deaths; Oates’ central character has long since not made old bones. But whatever ethical questions we might have over the non-fiction novel based on the socio-specifics of each book, there is an aesthetic appropriation taking place. It is not so much that the writer serves the subject, as we expect from journalism, but that the subject no less serves the writer. It fits into their creative preoccupations. Oates is no stranger to burgeoning sexuality and lost young women (in American Appetites for example, or some of the stories from Wild Saturday) and Marilyn Monroe is the hyperbolised version of it. The writer goes to Monroe to understand an aspect of her own interest in troubled youth. In the Guardian, Oates writes: “Norma Jeane’s mother, Gladys Monroe, a film cutter at RKO Pictures, seems to have come from a family tormented by what would now be identified as bi-polar disorder and a propensity toward suicide.” Oates adds “she had frequent mental breakdowns and had to be hospitalised; for her daughter this meant being placed in foster homes. Her father, identified by some biographers as a salesman for RKO Pictures, played no role in Norma Jeane’s life. As Monroe recalls in this interview, she was, at the age of 11, already being mistaken for a more mature, adolescent girl; such responses from men made her happy…” This doesn’t mean the writer exploits her subject; more that she sees in Monroe a living example of the fiction that fascinates her. She can only appropriate her through the notion of appropriateness: it fits into her aesthetic demands. Thus whether one draws on one’s own life or that of another, whether the book is autobiographically inclined or biographically delineating, the question is what makes it a work of art – as if it is the art that protects the writer from the ethically dubious.

This seems to be close to Cressida Connolly’s argument as she rejects the book. “I do not think she approached this project cynically. With a distinguished track record of 30 books behind her, she cannot have meant to exploit her subject.” “The trouble lies with the form” Connolly believes. “Fictionalising a life is a dodgy business, because the only thing which separates it from biography is conjecture, and, by extension, untruth. When the facts of the subject’s life are as copiously recorded as Marilyn’s, only the wildest invention can heave such an enterprise into fiction.” (Guardian) This was part of the problem for many with In Cold Blood. As Laura Miller in Salon says speaking of Harold Nye, of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, and Alvin Dewey, the lead investigator: “Dewey was slow to follow up on the lead — a tip from a jailhouse snitch — that would eventually bring the investigation to Hickock. Capote describes Dewey acting immediately on the tip, while Nye’s records indicate that the investigator waited five days.” Facts would seem to have given way to narrative tension and if this is so perhaps we should have a problem with the non-fiction form if we seek from it the logistical specifics of the case. However, even if we would expect it from In Cold Blood, this needn’t negate the non-fiction form altogether. There are many ways in which one can construct an event without at all categorically tampering with the evidence, so to speak. Oates, for example, knows for sure that Monroe sang for the president but she knows as well as anybody else what was go9ng through Monroe’s mind at the time, and even diary entries, letters, reported conversations to friends, would only partially reveal those thoughts. The imaginative writer has the opportunity to fill in the blank spaces of the empirical: to give to the surface of an event the subterranean subjectivity that offers another perspective without countering the surface fact.

How far the non-fiction writer goes into altering the facts to explore that subterranean vision is a question someone who knows the minutiae of Monroe’s life might want to enquire into, but there is no sense this is what Connolly has done, and would require rather more space than a Guardian review to do so. This doesn’t mean a non-fiction novelist can write with no concern for the biographical; more that one’s concern for the potential errors would require detective work and historical research; skills quite different from that of an aesthetician or a novelist. This would be the work of a journalist. The most pressing question is whether Oates manages to reveal a particular sensibility, shape Monroe’s personality around her own creative demands, and write prose that resists the cliches of biographical form. Connolly at moments thinks not. Blonde‘s “gravest flaw is that it fails to make Marilyn a living, breathing presence,” she says, adding “because anyone who is really interested in Marilyn will find more truth in a biography. Because anyone who is not interested in her will not want to read it anyway. Because it is too long! Because it is littered with exclamation marks! Because it wilfully sets out to be epoch-making. Because it contains whole paragraphs – and one entire chapter – in which every sentence begins with the word because.”

This is hardly criticism at its most surgical but at least in principle we might agree that a non-fiction novel fails if the writing and the imagination cannot generate a plausible interior sensibility. If, as John Updike claims, “we look to fiction for images of reality – real life rendered as vicarious experience, with a circumstantial intimacy that more factual, explanatory accounts cannot quite supply” (Due Considerations), then does Blonde manage this? We think it does. Monroe became such an object of affection partly because she was perceived consistently as an object, but Oates manages to take this weight of objective fact and turn it into subjective memoir, hence offering a particular form of ghost-writing. “So much of Blonde is obviously fiction, to call it “non-fiction” would be misleading. (I explain in my preface: if you want historical veracity, you must go to the biographies.” Oates says. “Even while perhaps not 100% accurate, they are at least predicated upon literal truth, while the novel aspires to a spiritual/poetic truth.” (Prairie Schooner) Perhaps for Oates, this distinction rests on the degree of emotional freedom one has within the work, the degree to which one can reimagine an actual personage. Yet we can have a non-fiction novel that is imaginatively alive to the subject while not at all tampering with the facts of an existence. The problem for some with Capote’s In Cold Blood is that he needed to play with the facts to generate a narrative, and then needed a tragedy to conclude it. Oates is more inclined to work from inside her subject and thus has less of a need to change anything. The key moments in the book are the same as in life: she marries a famous baseball player and a famous playwright; she sings for Kennedy and appears in a series of films including The Seven Year Itch, Some Like it Hot and The Misfits. Events are internally imagined rather than externally altered. It is thus fair to call the work a non-fiction novel as others falling under that rubric. Indeed the idea of the non-fiction novel could be explored from the position of the nature of its freedom. If it cannot change the factual basis of its narrative with the latitude of an obviously fictional work, then it can work on a molecular rather than molar level: it can work not on the general structure of reality, but on the emotional equivalent that gives the writer the capacity to imagine the inner reality of lives that are usually only offered in outer form. As Manuel Munoz says in NPR Books, “There’s a famous photo of Monroe, alone, reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s a rare glimpse at her interiority, maybe the woman she wanted to be, far from the image of the “dumb blonde” that dominated her life.” Oates insists on offering a Blonde who speaks from beyond the grave and also within herself, something Hollywood never quite managed to allow her, as Oates offers a certain type of feminism, and feminist writing, that is far removed from the militant or the insistent: closer to what has been called ecriture feminine. If “French feminists such as Helene Cixous and Julia Kristeva have postulated femininity as a theoretical area which represents all that is marginalised within the dominant patriarchal order” (The Icon Critical Dictionary Feminism and Post Feminism), then one way of exploring this mode of domination is by generating interior possibilities within the external facts. That might not have been Oates’ intention, but it generates hope both for a certain feminine writing, and for a way of perceiving an event as an experience which has potentially many realities beyond the positivistic.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Blonde

Blonde

Blonde is almost a thousand pages long in the Fourth Estate paperback and an unequivocal account of Marilyn Monroe without quite passing for a biography. It is a work of literature rather than of research, with Joyce Carol Oates saying "I'd hoped to evoke a poetic, spiritual, "inner" truth", and insists she did not do "considerable research" (Prairie Schooner) It is instead an autobiography of the dead, ghostwritten, with Oates trying to find her way into the mind of Norma Jeane Baker/Marilyn Monroe. It is a work of interiority rather than exteriority and this requires the skills not of the logistical tabulator of life experience, but the novelist who wants to put together the emotional reality of somebody's life. We would make very poor biographers of our own existence as we so often settle for the approximate over the precise: our childhoods, for example, are a jumble of impressions, of imprecisions, yet they are held together by a consciousness giving them a contiguous place, allowing us to marshal them according to various emotional and psychological needs in the present. Even in therapy, we wouldn't be expected to remember our past with biographical accuracy; simply to give it a fuller context in relation to the impact events have had on our lives.

Blonde is in this sense a work of self-analysis without the self, or rather with a self Oates perceives almost subjunctively, and from a certain point of view even a feminist work. One day Oates was looking at a photograph of a seventeen-year-old Norma Jean Baker and saw in her girls she remembered from her own youthful years, young women from broken homes. "For days I almost felt a sense of rapturous excitement, that I might give life to this lost, lone girl, whom the iconic consumer product Marilyn Monroe would soon overwhelm and obliterate." (Prairie Schooner) Oates explores what it means to create a schizophrenia that can split a personality in two positively, with Monroe the successful split personality her mother failed to become. While her beautiful mum would like to have appeared on the silver screen and ended up instead in a mental home, Marilyn Monroe's schizophrenia manifested itself as celebrity: a persona she could turn on and off but that never gave her the basic security of an integrated self. She became the ultimate example of the star as split personality: the dark-haired Norma Jean and the platinum blonde Marilyn Monroe who didn't change her name until 1956, well into her years as one of the world's most famous names while still being acknowledged by many who knew her as the name she was christened with. Oates's book works from this schism, seeing in the mother what the daughter could easily become as if great beauty wasn't only about taking you places (Hollywood) but keeping you out of them too (the 'funny farm'). "Mother once said Fear is born of hope", Monroe thinks to herself, but hope within the context of the American dream that always threatens to be an American nightmare is the balm that can keep the anxiety in abeyance. After all, Monroe had been "a welfare kid...a ward of L.A. county placed with a foster family on Reseda Street, Van Nuys, a street of shabby bungalows and grassless yards and her foster father owned a half acre of used cars, trucks, motorcycles, and other junk for sale..." But while hope might be able to reduce fear, can success ever conquer poverty as Monroe seemed a pretty good example of taking the girl out of the street but never quite taking the street out of the girl. As Oates explores the trajectory of Monroe's emotional life in this fictional account that can move from the breathlessly personal to the paranoiacally distant, Norma Jeane moves from her teen love from home to Joe Di Maggio, Arthur Miller and finally the president. We see a woman moving up in the world but accumulating a feeling of vertigo as she finds no firm ground. If for her mother the lower she fell the more precarious her mental health became, for Monroe the greater the celebrity, the more success she had, the closer she came to collapse. At the end of the book, Monroe sings for JFK on his birthday, and Oates has one of the president's buddies nudging him in the ribs saying, "hope she fucks better than she sings Prez and the witty Prez muttered around his cigar. No but, fucking her, you don't have to listen to her sing, which cracked up everybody in the box."

It is the high point of her career that could be seen as the low point for her ego, and one thinks of a piece of short fiction, 'Idolatory', by Sherman Alexei. about a Native American Indian woman who gets the opportunity to sing at a pop idol contest. She chooses Patsy Cline, well aware that all her friends and family thinks she is a very good singer. She sings and after the first verse the British judge tells her to stop: she should never sing again. Of course she is mortified; she has been exposed in front of millions and recalls how often she had sung in front of others who told her she was good. The story closes on the line "in this world, we must love the liars or go unloved." It is an ambiguous line that could seem cynical or just the opposite. Is it not often the liars who do love us as they praise our attributes simply as a means by which to praise our essence? They know that we might not be the best in the world but we are the most important to them, and they convey it in their enthusiasm for mediocrity that with their love turns base metal into gold. This never happened to Monroe, with a mother who would constantly criticise and wouldn't even acknowledge her status even when she was a superstar. "For that is what love is. A protection from harm." Oates says. "If there is harm there was inadequate love." Monroe was box-office gold emotionally treated as base metal.

There is no doubt that Monroe's was a life of inadequate love. "My work is the only ground I've ever had to stand on. I seem to have a whole superstructure with no foundation but I'm working on the foundation." (In Her Own Words) That is a paradox which is perhaps an impossibility: how does one retrospectively work on the foundations, and did Monroe mean by this that she would focus on the work through more technical means, as she would go along to the Actor's Studio? Her past need "not destroy her; it might yet become part of the vocabulary and technique of a new art ..." Lee Strasberg said, quoted in Donald Spoto's biography, Marilyn Monroe. Or it could equally mean that she would find in her personal life the love she couldn't find in her childhood. Men like Joe di Maggio and Arthur Miller loved her very much, but there would have seemed to be in such love, and in the love many others offered Monroe as well, an attempt not only to love but to excavate, or operate on, the non-love within her. It was as though it wasn't enough to love greatly in the present, one's love would somehow need to find its way into the fold of Monroe's past too.

No man could quite do that, which is perhaps why Oates pays so much attention to letters Monroe's father writes, as though suggesting that the only man in her life who might have been able to provide the foundations remained a wish rather than a reality as she tried tpo find it in constant encounters in her adulthood. But Di Maggio was never going to be subtle enough for Monroe, and Miller too neurotic for a woman who would constantly become infatuated with others as everyone would become infatuated with her. Di Maggio, Oates tells us through Marilyn's consciousness, "the Ex-Athlete was claiming he loved her, he'd never loved any woman as he loved her, he wanted to marry her. On their second date already, before even they'd become lovers. Was it possible? A man so famous, so kind and generous and a gentleman, wanted to marry her?" Miller's "heart was stricken with love of her. Why, she was just a child, as dependent upon him as one of your own children."

Perhaps the only cure for such a life without foundations is not to seek love but to demand fame: it will never satisfy the need for love, but fame will allow for the insatiable appetite for affection that Monroe managed to emanate into the auditorium. In Alexai's story, there will be no fame but there will be love. The girl walks off the stage and into the arms of her mother. Marilyn could only walk off the stage and into the arms of another man, who would not love her unconditionally. No matter the love shown, would it not always be conditioned by the love previously not shown? So in some ways, she always remained on the stage. Oates opens the chapter where Di Maggio falls in love with Monroe with a line from Stanislavski: "always you must play yourself. But it will be an infinite variety." In an interview with Time magazine, Oates would say, "I think that Monroe is a representative American of a time, a place, a category of being, with whom virtually anyone can identify." Oates adds: "she had to be seductive to everyone. It was like a compulsion. A woman who doesn't especially care what other people think of her, whose sense of self is strong, from within, would not try so hard to please. The very notion of bleaching one's hair platinum blond, wearing so much makeup and squeezing into tight dresses, would not appeal to many, perhaps most women." Monroe may have belatedly gone to study with Lee Strasberg in New York, but she was always a Method actress. Instead, though of turning her personal conflicts into the role she was playing, she instead turned her life into the role that she would consistently play: the individual roles in Bus Stop, The Seven Year Itch, Niagara and Some Like it Hot are but subsidiaries of Marilyn Monroe.

This, of course, is true of many stars who aspire to, or find themselves with, a status close to that of an icon: John Wayne, Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. But Monroe's iconic status seemed to get caught between the vulnerability she couldn't hide and the persona she couldn't retreat from. Few actresses have appeared needier than Monroe in a profession that is not known for its fortitude. Painters and novelists can be their own men or women, but the actor is always somebody else's muse, a pliable object turning into an emotional subject as the filmmaker turns a block of flesh into a character. The actor is exposing him or herself constantly as they reveal varying degrees of fragility, while rarely having much agency. This might not be so great an issue if the actor is also their own director as Chaplin happened to be, or their iconic status contrary to their own biographies. John Wayne may have represented more than anyone the American hero, but even the director with whom he was most associated, John Ford, commented on his absence from service during WWII. As Gary Wills notes, Ford once suggested: "Duke, can't you manage a salute that at least looks like you've been in the service." (John Wayne: The Politics of Celebrity) In Monroe there was the sense that her life and her work weren't that far apart - even if the roles she played weren't autobiographical; they were nevertheless vulnerable. It is a particular type of vulnerability that Oates assesses in her comment above, the sort that demands she always looked her best no matter if she felt her worst. There is an obligation to play to the crowd but also to acknowledge that within that crowd everybody is an individual with their own despair, and none more so than the person playing to it.

This makes the star not only resemble the Gods, as we find in numerous accounts of stardom that understandably muse over the ways in which the modern era generates people whom we can identify with as we might have looked towards Zeus, Aphrodite, Apollo and Athena, but with the added dimension of the psychoanalytic. Cinema coincided with the development of psychoanalysis, but we needn't see this as the necessity of psychoanalytic film theory (which developed in the sixties and seventies); more that the psychoanalytic became an aspect of the performance in the post-war years, a point played up in Monroe's final film The Misfits, with the movie manifestly exploring the vulnerabilities and frailties of its leading actors: Monroe, Montgomery Clift and Clark Gable. In Blonde, Oates says, "there's a curse on the actor, always you are seeking an audience. And when the audience sees your hunger it's like smelling blood. Their cruelty begins" as Oates explores the making of the film in fiction form. This is the cruelty of the audience where the actor no longer functions as a God but a figure of sacrifice, and Oates' book is an attempt to move from one to the other while always underpinning it with a sense of inevitability. Monroe could never have survived her childhood; she could only exploit it, taking full advantage of the traumatic to allow for the dramatic. Near the end of the book, the president says to her, "there's something in you none of them has, MARILYN. No woman I know. You're alive to be touched. To be breathed on like a flame. Alive to be hurt, even!" Adoration can be a certain type of threat as indifference is not. A Monroe who would have ignored her childhood, played down her beauty and never made it on to the screen might have been able to ignore the childhood neglect, as if the ideal for well-being is love by those close to us in childhood followed by the crowd's indifference in adulthood, rather like the character in Alexei's story. But indifference in childhood that leads to adulation in adulthood would seem both voracious and vicarious: one wishes for the love that was absent and somehow can never quite turn it into presence. Stardom becomes the means by which one has it all and at the same time has nothing. Throughout the book, Oates keeps returning to Monroe's mother in the mental institute, looking both to receive the love that hadn't been there when Marilyn was young, while wary of the press reporting on her lunatic mother. On one visit where she is thinking of relocating to New York and studying with Lee Strasberg, she says "Mother, I love you but you hurt me so. Please don't hurt me, Mother. I realize you aren't well but can't you try?"

Of course, more and more people are at the mercy of the review, and at the same time, we are not simply expected to have an active employment life that keeps the CV in good shape, but also our private lives too as social media draws few distinctions between work and leisure. A few Facebook photos from years ago become part of the accumulated information an employer might have to hand. If Warhol so famously and astutely suggested we would all soon be famous for fifteen minutes, then the star was the precursor to this invasion of self. Now many people receive performance assessments at work, too, but again, the star was expected to receive such reviews and in the public context after each film. Anyone who does not have the basis of healthy affection initially might regard such tests as containing more significance than is humanly useful - positively or negatively. The combination of Monroe's terrible childhood and that the actor was often expected to be more revealing of their faults and foibles (out of the Method) meant that Marilyn appeared much more vulnerable than any star before her. She was the halfway house halfway through the century between the star who has it all and the star from whom all is taken. The problem with being a superstar is that you are the sum total of the divided affection received. In other words, we might expect the undivided love of a husband or partner, but celebrity is a certain type of polyamory: one has to be loved by many - the box-office demands it. Obviously, many a star will deal with this by acknowledging their commodity status. They know their audience demographically and generically and don't assume that love has anything to do with it.

Yet Monroe played up, or couldn't easily play down, her vulnerability, needed to feel that she wasn't a star who people wanted to watch, but someone people wanted to love. "I can't memorize the words by themselves. I have to memorize the feelings" Marilyn thinks in Blonde, as though the difference between the star as commodity and the star who wishes to be loved is that the commodified star knows they don't have to project feelings into the role, they just have to convey feelings out of words. It is the words that matter. But Monroe wanted to see acting perhaps as a risk: that to memorise a few lines didn't raise the stakes very high and in this area we could see why Oates, fascinated by boxing, would also be interested in Monroe. When Oates says "it cannot be a coincidence that everyone's favourite boxing novel, Leonard Gardner's Fat City, is a novel less about boxing than about the strategies of self-deception: handbook of sorts in failure, in which boxing functions as the natural activity of men totally unequipped to comprehend life." (On Boxing) It might echo a little Truman Capote's remark about Monroe: "this beautiful child is without any concept of discipline or sacrifice. Somehow I don't think she'll make old bones." (Music for Chameleons) Failing to make old bones or damaging one's knuckles and destroying one's looks fall loosely into the same problem: the issue of taking risks.

We might wonder too whether Oates is taking risks as well. The writer who moves into the factual within the fictional can do so in one of two obvious ways: towards the autobiographically revealing or the biographically exhaustive. They can attend to their own existence and those around them, or they can explore a life that has no direct contact to their own. In the former instances lies the shame that you can heap on yourself and your loved ones; in the latter the risk of a court case when people in your work don't like what you have said about them. Emmanuel Carrere writes very well of the problems concerning the former. "To write bad things about yourself...it's like Massu using the generator on himself. You decide yourself when you're going to stop. When you write about others, there's a huge responsibility. For my part, I have used the generator on people other than myself. And that bothers me. I don't like that idea. "(New York Times) Concerning the latter, the website Write Hacked says: "If you wait until the person is dead before you write about them, you may have some added protection. In many states, the right of publicity and claims for defamation die when the person dies. That is not true in all states, however. The right of publicity exists after death and for the benefit of heirs in the state of California, for instance, where Hollywood has a strong legislative lobby." The former indicates the problem of guilt; the latter the issue of law. One might risk the latter over the former if for no better reason than if you can get away with writing a book about a famous personage one is unlikely to feel too much remorse in the wake of doing so. But writing a book about those close to us can lead to later hauntings, to a sense that a friend or family member's unhappiness could be linked to what we have written about them.

Yet sometimes the ethical can come back to haunt the non-fictional, as some may believe was the case with Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. Andrew O'Hagan (who himself wrote a superb non-fiction work The Missing) addresses the question in the LRB. He quotes Kenneth Tynan saying " 'We are talking...about responsibility. For the first time an influential writer in the front rank has been placed in a privileged intimacy with criminals about to die and, in my view, done less than he might have to save them ... No piece of prose, however deathless, is worth a human life.' O'Hagan also mentions the composer Ned Rorem saying, "Capote got two million and his heroes got the rope. That book ... was completed before the deaths of Smith and Hickock: yet, had they not died, there would have been no book." If some saw Capote pushing his real-life protagonists towards their grave, Oates would seem to be trying to bring Monroe back to life, taking into account our initial remarks. It would have none of the ethical problems evident in Capote's book but nevertheless shares with it an appropriative dimension. It is as if everyone wants to be famous in American and thus a person's privacy would seem to be secondary to another's entitlement to expose. Oates' ethical conundrum here is to offer yet another exploration of Monroe that wouldn't simply arrive at exploitation. She does so by trying to give Monroe the voice that was never quite given to her by the publicity machine she was made by and ground down by in equal measure. If there are many lives that a writer dignifies within the context of the anonymity of the subject - giving voice for example to a black slave, a sex worker, a homeless person - how to find the means to give a voice to someone who possesses an enormous public profile? Is there something in American life that generates celebrity and visibility but that minimizes interiority and integrity of self? Was Norma Jean Baker who became Marilyn Monroe the ultimate example of the public American Dream as personal nightmare? Oates' novel is a suffocating work in some ways, and we don't mean this pejoratively. If Oates wanted to write a book that would be like a memoir from beyond the grave, we might add that it is written as if from within that grave.

The book opens with the italicised line: "The movie I've been seeing all my life, yet never to its completion" but perhaps Monroe's life never needed a film but a book. It is a common clich that everybody has a book in them, but maybe what people really mean by this is that they have an interior life that is given so little outer form. The more the culture out of which we come focuses on the external life, on the idea of getting on, making something of oneself, the harder it might be for this book that is our inner life to become manifest. Monroe became the most famous external figure in 20th-century life, but more than most there seemed to be another personality inside that was seeking an outlet. We do not sense this with other icons of the age, like John Wayne, Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant or Audrey Hepburn, and the actor she would most resemble in this context would be one who did manage to be both iconic and expressive - her friend Marlon Brando, who has a key role in the book, referred to as the Dark Prince. If Brando would sometimes question the significance of acting, it resided partly on the difficulty for the actor to express and explore the self in its myriad possibilities, rather than reading out a few lines that would push the story along. One way of looking at the Method is to see that it gives to acting the interiority evident in literature. The actor accesses the self as readily as plays a role; can indeed only play the role after accessing the self. "Acting is the most personal of our crafts", Strasberg once said. "The make-up of a human being - his physical, mental and emotional habits - influence his acting to a much greater extent than commonly recognized."

Monroe never quite succeeded in accessing that self; Oates, in an act of humility or arrogance according to taste, tries to do it for her. Is this the modesty of the writer insistently getting into somebody else's head; or the pompousness of the novelist speaking for others? It is not an easy question to answer but certainly a question that Oates addresses. Working in what is commonly referred to as the non-fiction novel as opposed to the journalistic book, Oates determines to get inside heads, not simply offer a voice to others. Thus, works like Blonde, In Cold Blood, The Executioner's Song, Notes on a Kidnapping are all works of creativity in Capote's definition: The Oscar Lewis book is a documentary, a job of editing from tapes, and however skillful and moving, it is not creative writing. "Hiroshima" is creative-in the sense that Hersey isn't taking something off a tape recorder and editing it-but it still hasn't got anything to do with what I'm talking about. "Hiroshima" is a strict classical journalistic piece. What is closer is what Lillian Ross did with "Picture." Or my own book, "The Muses Are Heard"-which uses the techniques of the comic short novel ." (New York Times) Especially when he adds that "if you mean James Breslin and Tom Wolfe, and that crowd, they have nothing to do with creative journalism-in the sense that I use the term-because neither of them, nor any of that school of reporting, have the proper fictional technical equipment. It's useless for a writer whose talent is essentially journalistic to attempt creative reportage, because it simply won't work."

Of course in Capote's case these were men close to their deaths; Oates' central character has long since not made old bones. But whatever ethical questions we might have over the non-fiction novel based on the socio-specifics of each book, there is an aesthetic appropriation taking place. It is not so much that the writer serves the subject, as we expect from journalism, but that the subject no less serves the writer. It fits into their creative preoccupations. Oates is no stranger to burgeoning sexuality and lost young women (in American Appetites for example, or some of the stories from Wild Saturday) and Marilyn Monroe is the hyperbolised version of it. The writer goes to Monroe to understand an aspect of her own interest in troubled youth. In the Guardian, Oates writes: "Norma Jeane's mother, Gladys Monroe, a film cutter at RKO Pictures, seems to have come from a family tormented by what would now be identified as bi-polar disorder and a propensity toward suicide." Oates adds "she had frequent mental breakdowns and had to be hospitalised; for her daughter this meant being placed in foster homes. Her father, identified by some biographers as a salesman for RKO Pictures, played no role in Norma Jeane's life. As Monroe recalls in this interview, she was, at the age of 11, already being mistaken for a more mature, adolescent girl; such responses from men made her happy..." This doesn't mean the writer exploits her subject; more that she sees in Monroe a living example of the fiction that fascinates her. She can only appropriate her through the notion of appropriateness: it fits into her aesthetic demands. Thus whether one draws on one's own life or that of another, whether the book is autobiographically inclined or biographically delineating, the question is what makes it a work of art - as if it is the art that protects the writer from the ethically dubious.

This seems to be close to Cressida Connolly's argument as she rejects the book. "I do not think she approached this project cynically. With a distinguished track record of 30 books behind her, she cannot have meant to exploit her subject." "The trouble lies with the form" Connolly believes. "Fictionalising a life is a dodgy business, because the only thing which separates it from biography is conjecture, and, by extension, untruth. When the facts of the subject's life are as copiously recorded as Marilyn's, only the wildest invention can heave such an enterprise into fiction." (Guardian) This was part of the problem for many with In Cold Blood. As Laura Miller in Salon says speaking of Harold Nye, of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, and Alvin Dewey, the lead investigator: "Dewey was slow to follow up on the lead a tip from a jailhouse snitch that would eventually bring the investigation to Hickock. Capote describes Dewey acting immediately on the tip, while Nye's records indicate that the investigator waited five days." Facts would seem to have given way to narrative tension and if this is so perhaps we should have a problem with the non-fiction form if we seek from it the logistical specifics of the case. However, even if we would expect it from In Cold Blood, this needn't negate the non-fiction form altogether. There are many ways in which one can construct an event without at all categorically tampering with the evidence, so to speak. Oates, for example, knows for sure that Monroe sang for the president but she knows as well as anybody else what was go9ng through Monroe's mind at the time, and even diary entries, letters, reported conversations to friends, would only partially reveal those thoughts. The imaginative writer has the opportunity to fill in the blank spaces of the empirical: to give to the surface of an event the subterranean subjectivity that offers another perspective without countering the surface fact.

How far the non-fiction writer goes into altering the facts to explore that subterranean vision is a question someone who knows the minutiae of Monroe's life might want to enquire into, but there is no sense this is what Connolly has done, and would require rather more space than a Guardian review to do so. This doesn't mean a non-fiction novelist can write with no concern for the biographical; more that one's concern for the potential errors would require detective work and historical research; skills quite different from that of an aesthetician or a novelist. This would be the work of a journalist. The most pressing question is whether Oates manages to reveal a particular sensibility, shape Monroe's personality around her own creative demands, and write prose that resists the cliches of biographical form. Connolly at moments thinks not. Blonde's "gravest flaw is that it fails to make Marilyn a living, breathing presence," she says, adding "because anyone who is really interested in Marilyn will find more truth in a biography. Because anyone who is not interested in her will not want to read it anyway. Because it is too long! Because it is littered with exclamation marks! Because it wilfully sets out to be epoch-making. Because it contains whole paragraphs - and one entire chapter - in which every sentence begins with the word because."

This is hardly criticism at its most surgical but at least in principle we might agree that a non-fiction novel fails if the writing and the imagination cannot generate a plausible interior sensibility. If, as John Updike claims, "we look to fiction for images of reality - real life rendered as vicarious experience, with a circumstantial intimacy that more factual, explanatory accounts cannot quite supply" (Due Considerations), then does Blonde manage this? We think it does. Monroe became such an object of affection partly because she was perceived consistently as an object, but Oates manages to take this weight of objective fact and turn it into subjective memoir, hence offering a particular form of ghost-writing. "So much of Blonde is obviously fiction, to call it "non-fiction" would be misleading. (I explain in my preface: if you want historical veracity, you must go to the biographies." Oates says. "Even while perhaps not 100% accurate, they are at least predicated upon literal truth, while the novel aspires to a spiritual/poetic truth." (Prairie Schooner) Perhaps for Oates, this distinction rests on the degree of emotional freedom one has within the work, the degree to which one can reimagine an actual personage. Yet we can have a non-fiction novel that is imaginatively alive to the subject while not at all tampering with the facts of an existence. The problem for some with Capote's In Cold Blood is that he needed to play with the facts to generate a narrative, and then needed a tragedy to conclude it. Oates is more inclined to work from inside her subject and thus has less of a need to change anything. The key moments in the book are the same as in life: she marries a famous baseball player and a famous playwright; she sings for Kennedy and appears in a series of films including The Seven Year Itch, Some Like it Hot and The Misfits. Events are internally imagined rather than externally altered. It is thus fair to call the work a non-fiction novel as others falling under that rubric. Indeed the idea of the non-fiction novel could be explored from the position of the nature of its freedom. If it cannot change the factual basis of its narrative with the latitude of an obviously fictional work, then it can work on a molecular rather than molar level: it can work not on the general structure of reality, but on the emotional equivalent that gives the writer the capacity to imagine the inner reality of lives that are usually only offered in outer form. As Manuel Munoz says in NPR Books, "There's a famous photo of Monroe, alone, reading James Joyce's Ulysses. It's a rare glimpse at her interiority, maybe the woman she wanted to be, far from the image of the "dumb blonde" that dominated her life." Oates insists on offering a Blonde who speaks from beyond the grave and also within herself, something Hollywood never quite managed to allow her, as Oates offers a certain type of feminism, and feminist writing, that is far removed from the militant or the insistent: closer to what has been called ecriture feminine. If "French feminists such as Helene Cixous and Julia Kristeva have postulated femininity as a theoretical area which represents all that is marginalised within the dominant patriarchal order" (The Icon Critical Dictionary Feminism and Post Feminism), then one way of exploring this mode of domination is by generating interior possibilities within the external facts. That might not have been Oates' intention, but it generates hope both for a certain feminine writing, and for a way of perceiving an event as an experience which has potentially many realities beyond the positivistic.


© Tony McKibbin