Joyce Carol Oates’s novel Blonde is a fictional account of the life of Marilyn Monroe and is studied for the ways in which it has crafted fiction with non-fiction and stylistically for its use of multiple points of view. Blonde follows a form of writing that has marked much of Oates’s work, namely, fictionalising of contemporary American events, such as in her novel Black Water (1992), which re-enacted the Chappaquiddick case involving Senator Edward Kennedy, and Zombie (1995), a novella about serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
The novel breaks from traditional historical fiction by employing complex narrative devices. Much of the story is told in an intimate third person narrative focussed on Norma Jeane, Monroe’s real name to which Oates has added an ‘e.’ This point of view is interspersed with passages taken from Norma Jeane’s journal in the first person. There are also dreamlike chapters which seem to come from Norma Jeane’s subconscious. Some passages take a more poetic and distant perspective of the ‘Monroe’ story, the reinvented Norma Jeane. Occasionally, the narrative switches to first person accounts from minor characters, such as a reporter and a surfer.
The story starts poetically in a prologue on the subject of death in 1962, the reader knowing that it refers to Marilyn Monroe’s untimely death:
There came death unerring. Death not to be dissuaded. Death-in-a-hurry. Death furiously pedalling. Death carrying a package marked *SPECIAL DELIVERY HANDLE WITH CARE* in a sturdy wire basket behind his seat.
As if a film flashback from the grave, the narrative restarts with Monroe’s childhood as Norma Jeane in 1930’s Los Angeles. There she is raised briefly by her mother and does not know the identity of her absent father. After her mother is hospitalised with mental illness, she ends up in an orphanage. This is followed by a foster home, where Norma Jeane’s developing female body creates tension between her foster parents. Her foster mother deals with this by pushing her foster daughter into marriage at the tender age of sixteen.
Norma Jean grows into Monroe and it is her relationships with men that dominate the novel and fix the story into a chronological narrative. After her first divorce, her next significant relationships were with Hollywood residents, Cass Chaplin, who was Charlie Chaplin Jr, and Eddy G, the son of Edward G Robinson. This a manage a trois is historically only rumoured to have happened. Although it was with the two men that Monroe became addicted to sleeping pills and had an aborted pregnancy, her relationship with them is depicted positively through Norma Jean’s eyes: “She never felt so content. Never so happy.”
For other men in Monroe’s life, Oates plays with the reader’s knowledge of celebrities and has given them sobriquets reflecting the public perceptions. Her second husband, the baseball player Joe DiMaggio, is “the Ex-Athlete”; her third husband, Arthur Miller, is “the Playwright”; and President John Kennedy is simply “the President.” With each relationship, the objectification of women is further explored, as Monroe becomes the “mammalian Marilyn” and “the Blonde Actress,” removed further from herself as Norma Jean.
Throughout the story there is also an elusive character called The Dark Prince. The reader is told that this prince is not present in her childhood. “Even in daydreams, even with her eyes shut hard, Norma Jeane could not imagine him. He would be waiting for her in the movie dream: this would be her secret happiness.” At one point the name Dark Prince is given to a photographer, named Otto, who makes a small fortune from photographing her in the nude for a calendar (although she only earned $50). But the maturing Monroe later realises that Otto cannot be a Prince since he’s “a pornographer and a pimp.” The name of the Dark Prince is also ascribed to the actor Marlon Brando, who is one of the few men in Norma Jeane’s life not to have a sexual relationship with her. This search for a prince plays with the view that American society has nourished the idea that every woman wants to be princess.
Like Blonde, Dear Husband, a collection of fourteen short stories, departs from conventions of the short story genre with three epistolary stories and two stories that borrow their characters, names unchanged, from real life.
“A Princeton Idyll” is written as a series of letters between two women, a retired housekeeper and the granddaughter of a once famous professor, the latter is inquiring about her deceased grandfather. This exchange of letters uncovers a world of greed and perversion. ‘Dear Joyce Carol’ also employs lettering writing. Here the author breaks the wall between fiction and non-fiction and is potentially autobiographical. This story chronicles the mental deterioration of an admirer of the author, who receives the disturbed letters, but never replies. The fan’s letters reveal an arrogance in a way that provides humour. “Dear Husband” is a fictionalised account of the infanticide carried out by Andrea Yates, a much-publicised case in the United States. Told in a letter to her husband after the murders of their five children, Lauri Lynn’s ramblings and self-justification reflect upon the role of women as wives in a supposedly post-feminist society, alongside the way the mind can distort religion; throughout the letter Lauri claims ‘God instructed me’. As with other stories from this collection, social satire mixes with violence and mental fragility.
Another fictionalised history, “Landfill” tells of a missing college student whose body is found in “amid mounds of trash, cans, bottles, Styrofoam and cardboard packages, rancid raw garbage, stained and filthy clothing” as the result of a fraternity hazing. While this story deals sensitively with the grieving parents and the mystery and callousness behind their son’s death, it has been criticised for its mixing of fact and fiction. Identifiable as being based on a true-life story, Oates has changed the location of this event, but has retained the original date of the fraternity murder.
The “The Heart Sutra,” the lover of a famous poet who has long suffered under the weight of the poet’s celebrity, suffers even more at his sudden departure. As the poet is meditating and chanting at a Zen Buddhist retreat in the Adirondacks, his lover reviews their life together. In these reminiscences, fictional and real characters are mixed. The poet Derek Walcott is a friend of a poet, but he makes himself unreachable to the poet’s lover. The reader is taken along this psychological exploration of fame, love and raising a small child from birth, as it becomes slowly apparent to the reader that the lover plans on killing their child, as well as herself.
This playfulness of form and subject gives the collection texture and style, alongside the emotional intensity characteristic of Oates’s work.
Paola Trimarco is a writer and linguist. Her short stories have been published in several literary magazines and some of her stage plays have been professionally performed with the support of Arts Council England. One of her essays was shortlisted by Wasafiri Magazine for their Life Writing Competition 2014. As a linguist, she has authored four textbooks, including Digital Textuality (2015, Palgrave Macmillan), and she has had her research published in several books and journals. She is also a regular contributor to the Literary Encyclopedia.
Trimarco. P. "Blonde" by Joyce Carol Oates. The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 23 November 2015
Trimarco, P. "Dear Husband: Stories" by Joyce Carol Oates. The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 06 March 2015