Today, I decided to give up on reading Blonde, by Joyce Carol Oates. The book is over 700 pages and I’ve hit a wall at page 490. I feel there’s no sense in finishing. Here’s why:
Fact or Fiction
Blonde tells the story of Marilyn Monroe’s life. Only it doesn’t. It’s fiction. This contradiction wasn’t enough to turn me away from the book in the beginning. I’ve read several books, mainly biographical in nature, that were dubbed works of fiction. But in general, I prefer books where the author makes an attempt to accurately deliver a chronology of known events/characters. Oates kind of does this. But the liberties she takes in presenting her version of the story go beyond what I can personally tolerate. I have a strong dislike of Oliver Stone movies for the same reason.
This is the first novel that I’ve read by Oates. I loved her short stories in college and always wanted to read one of her books. When I saw Blonde mentioned on a list of favored books, by noted French-Morrocan author and journalist Leïla Silmani, I decided to buy it. There’s no question that Oates is an incredibly gifted writer of prose. Her ability to produce extremely long descriptive paragraphs that vividly portray a character’s state of mind seems on par with a golden retriever’s ability to fetch sticks. That is, she can do no other. Brevity, I dare say, is not one of her natural instincts.
Reading this book repeatedly reminded me of a scene from the movie “Wonder Boys”, based on the novel by Michael Chabon. In the film, Michael Douglas plays a middle-aged English professor, Grady Tripp, who is working on his second novel. Tripp’s first book was a smashing success, but 2000 pages into this second effort, he can’t find a way to wrap it up. When one of his graduate students, played by Katie Holmes, absconds with the incomplete manuscript, Professor Tripp cautiously asks her what she thinks. She replies, “You always say that writing is about making choices…You don’t seem to have made any. At all.” In my opinion, Blonde suffers from the same form of neglect.
Beyond the Page
I like books that make me curious enough to want to learn more about their subject matter. Two examples are The Orientalist, by Tom Reiss, and The Alice Network, by Kate Quinn. The former is a biography, the latter historical fiction. They both led me to Wikipedia and Google Maps on numerous occasions where I could get a deeper vision of the time and place being described. With Blonde, I again found myself googling to corroborate key elements of the story. In this case, however, my searches often dead-ended. This slowly dampened my enthusiasm for the book until I felt that finishing was somewhat pointless. Why read about Arthur Miller’s backstory (the point at which I stopped) if much of it is untrue?
Masterful Imagery Ad Infinitum
Marilyn Monroe, the public face of Norma Jean Mortenson, was a complicated personality. I’m not what you’d call a fan of the actress and didn’t know much about her before starting this book, but I had the sense that she was intelligent. Monroe may have been a natural beauty but it takes smarts to become the on-screen sexsation and prototypical dumb-blond that she perfectly personified. Oates’ portrayal reinforces the view that Marilyn was no dummy. Most of the character development, however, centers on Monroe’s insecurity and neurotic obsessions.
I think Oates does a masterful job of portraying Monroe’s tormented self-image, even if the circumstances are persistently fictionalized. Oates also peppers the book with frequent scenes of unbridled lust, many that are raunchy or abusive. Her writing is evocative, like an impressionist’s painting. But how many version’s of Monet’s water lilies do you need to see in succession? I found that I was able to appreciate Oates’ craft in each section of the book, but eventually, I got tired of the redundancy.