(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

There seems to be no end to the biographies and fictional representations of Marilyn Monroe. To say she is the most famous motion-picture star America has produced is to understate her importance. She is an icon, a point of reference for advertisers and artists worldwide. Her image is so well known that it can work by synecdoche. Just show a certain pair of lips, a skirt blown up in the wind, and Marilyn Monroe comes to mind.

With a figure so familiar can there be anything new to add? Yes, because the facts about her career, her relationships, and her family background continue to accumulate as researchers dig more deeply, as her friends and business associates die and documents are released, as those who were close to her feel it is now possible to be more candid about her and her circle. Recent biographies by Donald Spoto and Barbara Leaming, for example, flesh out new details of Monroe’s life.

It is to Joyce Carol Oates’s credit that she acknowledges in an “Author’s Note” the books that most influenced her interpretation of Monroe’s life. At the same time, the copyright page of Blonde emphatically states that Oates has not written a biography, that her work is the product of her imagination. It is natural to inquire, then, about the nexus between fact and fiction. How is Blonde to be read? How can it be based on fact and yet be the product of the author’s imagination?

The novel’s title offers a clue to the answer. Monroe has become “the blonde,” the archetype of the film star. The facts of her life have been repeated so often that they are now a kind of allegory of the blonde. Thus the novel includes references to Arthur Miller by name, but he is also “the Playwright,” just as Joe DiMaggio is named but is a character called “the Ex-Athlete,” and John Kennedy is called “the President.” In other words, Blonde captures—as no other book on Monroe has—the way Marilyn Monroe, the person and the legend, the fact and the fiction, circulates in the contemporary imagination.

As does any allegory, Blonde simplifies; that is, Oates does not attempt to account for all of the facts of Monroe’s life. She does not, for example, describe all of the actress’s foster homes or all of her important friendships and love affairs. At the same time, Oates does freely invent characters, including two gay male figures involved in a sexual triangle with Monroe. This is her economical way of dealing with the enormous appeal Monroe has for gay audiences as well as acknowledging the close relationships the actress had with gay men.

Unquestionably, however, Blonde will cause uneasiness among some readers. What is the point of inventing scenes and characters that have no reality in Monroe’s life? What is the point of making the Ex-Athlete a wife beater when the evidence against DiMaggio has not yet been produced? To both questions, it might be said that the reality of Monroe’s life is still emerging. To create new characters is to speculate about aspects of Monroe’s life that are still not very well known. Sometimes a novelist can suggest areas of investigation that are later corroborated by biographers looking for new evidence. In the case of Joe DiMaggio, there is the fact that his marriage to Monroe ended very abruptly—right after he watched the filming of the famous skirt-blowing scene in The Seven Year Itch (1955). It is known that DiMaggio and Monroe had a terrible, noisy quarrel after the filming. If DiMaggio did in fact hit her, that would certainly account for her sudden decision to divorce him. After all, the couple were married for only nine months.

Thus Oates probes the familiar details of Monroe’s life for new meaning. As a novelist she is free to find a coherence that the biographer, forced back upon only the facts, can find only fitfully since the gaps in the evidence cannot be imagined. Oates uses her novelist’s advantage to the hilt. What is new about her treatment of the Marilyn Monroe myth is her rigorous and brilliantly consistent treatment of the men in the actress’s life.

Monroe’s first husband, James Doughtery, appears as Bucky Glazer in the novel. He has the attributes of the man described in the Monroe biographies, with this additional characteristic: He likes to take pictures of his beautiful young wife in various stages of undress and in erotic postures. He poses her in wigs and costumes. She is ashamed of his exploitation of her body, but when she protests he explains that he is just having fun. Lots of husbands do such things with their wives. It does not mean anything. Yet Bucky himself is disturbed when he looks at the...

(The entire section is 1911 words.)