Penzler Pick, April 2000: It is surprising and shocking to realize that Joyce Carol Oates, one of the great writers living today, has never made The New York Times bestseller list (at least not in recent memory). Far less talented (and less famous) authors have made it while she, in all likelihood not caring much, has been shut out. That could easily change with her new novel, Blonde, which may be the masterpiece of a staggeringly distinguished career.
This 700-plus-page tome is based on the life of (you guessed it) Marilyn Monroe. In fictional form, with names changed (husband Joe DiMaggio is referred to as "The Ex-Athlete," Arthur Miller as "The Playwright," John F. Kennedy as "The President," for example), this may be the most accurate and compelling portrait of this beautiful and complex woman that one is ever likely to read.
But why discuss it on the mystery page, you might well be asking yourself. It was the author's intent to structure the book as a mystery, and of course she succeeds, as she seems to succeed at everything she attempts in the world of letters. And there is a murder, apparently arranged by a secret government bureau (FBI? CIA?), although that could be the victim's hallucination. Of course, it could also be both real and hallucinated (remember, even paranoids have enemies).
If you like biographies, you'll like Blonde. If you like novels, you'll like Blonde. If you like mysteries, you'll like Blonde. And if you fear that more than 700 pages by one of the greatest of living literary lions might be tough slogging, here's a little excerpt from the chapter titled "The President's Pimp:"
Sure he was a pimp.
But not just any pimp. Not him!
He was a pimp par excellence. A pimp nonpareil. A pimp sui generis. A pimp with a wardrobe, and a pimp with style. A pimp with a classy Brit accent. Posterity would honor him as the President's Pimp.
A man of pride and stature: the President's Pimp.
At Rancho Mirage in Palm Springs in March 1962 there was the President poking him in the ribs with a low whistle. "That blonde. That's Marilyn Monroe?"
He told the President yes it was. Monroe, a friend of his. Luscious, eh? But a little crazy.
Thoughtfully, the President asked, "Have I dated her yet?"
Nothing inaccessible about Joyce Carol Oates, especially in this most readable and relentlessly fascinating study of the lovely woman with whom the whole country was at least a little in love. --Otto Penzler
From Publishers Weekly
Dramatic, provocative and unsettlingly suggestive, Blonde is as much a bombshell as its protagonist, the legendary Marilyn Monroe. Writing in highly charged, impressionistic prose, Oates creates a striking and poignant portrait of the mythic star and the society that made and failed her. In a five-part narrative corresponding to the stages of Monroe's life, Oates renders the squalid circumstances of Norma Jeane's upbringing: the damage inflicted by a psychotic mother and the absence of an unknown (and perpetually yearned for) father, and the desolation of four years in an orphanage and betrayal in a foster home. She reviews the young Monroe's rocky road to stardom, involving sexual favors to studio chiefs who thought her sluttish, untalented and stupid, while they reaped millions from her movies; she conveys the essence of Monroe's three marriages and credibly establishes Monroe's insatiable need for security and love. To a remarkable extent, she captures Monroe's breathy voice and vulnerable stutter, and the almost schizoid personality that produced her mercurial behavior. (Emotionally volatile, fey, self-absorbed, and frightened, Monroe could also be tough, outspoken, vulgar--her notorious perfectionism a shield against the ridicule and failure that Oates claims she continually feared.) As Oates demonstrated early in her career in Them, and in many books since, she has an impressive ability to empathize with people in the underclass, and her nuanced portrait of "MM" carries psychological truth. Oates sees Monroe as doomed from the beginning by heredity and fate, and hurried to her death by a combination of cynical Hollywood exploitation, dependence on drugs and flawed choices of lovers and mates: JFK's cruel manipulation and shadowy intervention is the final blow to her fragile ego and her very existence. It is no surprise when, at the end, Oates subscribes to a controversial theory about Monroe's demise. Meanwhile, she draws a sharp-eyed picture of Hollywood during the 1940s and '50s; introduces a cast of movie-town personalities, from actors and agents to producers, directors and studio heads; creates intriguing character sketches of Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller; and conveys a nation's fascination with a cultural icon. The inevitable drawbacks in a book of this sort--deliberate omission of events, imaginative reconstruction of public and other events from Monroe's point of view--are problematical but not crucial. In an author's note, Oates declares that her novel "is not intended as a historic document." Yet she illuminates the source of her subject's long emotional torment as few factual biographies ever do. 100,000 first printing; major ad/promo; Literary Guild alternate; simultaneous Harper Audio; 5-city author tour. (Apr.)
See all Editorial Reviews
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.