To read Marilyn is to experience one of the primary documents of New Journalism, the literary technique that dominated the 1960’s and 1970’s, especially in the work of Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and Hunter S. Thompson. In New Journalism, the writer drops all pretenses of objectivity and distancing; the author, in fact, becomes part of the story, as Mailer himself demonstrated with great success in The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History (1968). In Marilyn, he does not pretend to have known his subject personally (or to have participated in her life in the way in which he participated in the march on the Pentagon), but he does inject his candid opinions of those personages he does know, such as Arthur Miller.
One of the issues, then, in any critical analysis of Marilyn is Mailer’s authority and the validity of his voice. Kate Millet and Germaine Greer have attacked Mailer as a sexist writer, and Mailer defends himself in such works as The Prisoner of Sex (1971) and Pieces and Pontifications (1982). Yet a close reading of Mailer reveals a rather complex and deeply sympathetic treatment of the character and personality of Marilyn Monroe, in spite of the considerable controversy created by the book (eight lengthy articles on aspects of this controversy appeared in The New York Times alone in 1973). In addition to being charged with sexism, Mailer was roundly criticized for purported plagiarism, and a libel suit was eventually filed against him. Thus, Mailer’s attitude and methodology must figure into any critical appraisal of the book.
There is a considerable amount of Mailer’s trademark prose style, a kind of high-energy assemblage of adjectives and nouns that yields such characterizations of Marilyn as “a sexual oven” with “a sweet little rinky-dink of a voice” for whom sex becomes “ice cream,” a woman who “emanated sex” and whose womb was “fairly salivating...
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Marilyn can easily be understood as the product of perilous times, a book produced during the height of the Watergate affair, when public distrust of the federal government was at an all-time high. Conspiracy theories of one sort or another had been in the air since the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and such theories only multiplied after the subsequent assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. Besides, as Mailer shows, undeniable links existed between the two Kennedy brothers and Marilyn Monroe. This book, then, must be reckoned as one of the representative documents of the decade in which it appeared. In its New Journalism style, in its heavy reliance on psychohistory, and in its conspiratorial outlook, it typifies the culture that produced it.
Marilyn also marks an important turning point in Norman Mailer’s career: Having fought the big battles over the book and triumphed (a fact which he celebrated in an advertisement in The New York Times Book Review on December 9, 1973), Mailer had reached a new literary plateau. He was now free to become the celebrity and public figure, and he could devote himself to a new kind of project, a book with no immediate connection to American culture, a book that freed him from the bondage of the present, Ancient Evenings (1983).
Perhaps the most enduring contribution that Marilyn offers the reader is Mailer’s concept of “factoids,” “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper.” Marilyn herself was to drop many factoids on the plates of unsuspecting reporters. In the end, she had tragically lost the ability to distinguish between the facts and certain factoids she delivered (especially about her childhood) with all the earnestness of method acting. In Marilyn’s tragedy, with all of its chilling consequences, Norman Mailer has left the reader with an idea that contains truly frightening implications, since factoids may be at the base of everything the reader so confidently assumes is real.