Thursday, February 19, 2015

Marilyn Monroe & Norma Jean (Jeane) Imagined by Joyce Carol Oates

I finished reading Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates last night. A 739 page fictionalized biography of Marilyn Monroe, it’s Oate’s longest book. And I read every word. And it had me in moods. At first, with the imagined Mother/Daughter relationship between Gladys and Norma Jean (Jeane) memories of the “crazy” mother I adored flushed up. But then…Oate’s portrayal of Monroe dwelled on “moist” and “yeasty” and I pretty much wanted to shower and never hear those words—which she repeats over and over and over—again. But not through the entire book, thank god! Prepubescent, adolescent, young woman daughter Norma Jean (Jeane) is the moist one while crazy, vacant, institutionalized mother Gladys is the yeasty one. Ugh.

The portrayal of early Monroe (Norma Jean/Jeane) as a young ditz is unnerving to read. The attempt at psychological verisimilitude sags, especially with Elsie Pirig, one of Norma Jean’s (Jeane’s) foster mothers and Bucky Glazer, her first husband (forced marriage). Someone abandoned at such a young age, and fatherless her entire life, strikes me as someone more likely to be hyper-aware and vigilant, not oblivious to her affect on men, and the envy of other females cascading into a torrent. I think the young Norma Jean (Jeane) was more likely honing her sexuality as a weapon, tool, commodity in diapers. If she was sexually abused at such a young age, she would be more likely to—at least intuitively or viscerally—comprehend the deep seething cauldron of desire, violation, bodily reactions, secrecy/shame, power that sex entails.
So while I think a large part of Oate’s portrayal falls flat, there are some EXQUISITE moments in the book. Two being when Monroe acts. The scene were she auditions for the part of Angela in The Asphalt Jungle is breathtaking. It’s like you’ve been immersed in mire and here comes that ray of light that pulls you up like angel wings. It gives credit to the theory that as an actress, Marilyn was a genius.

Another place the book shines is when Monroe connects with her third husband, playwright Arthur Miller. Her “imagined” effort to help him expand the character of Magda in one of his plays is gorgeous. I love that version of Marilyn.

There are many wonderful tidbits dispersed throughout the text, but they’re hard won. Mostly, reading the book was torture. So if Oate’s intention was to take the reader on a psychedelic horror awe-fulness ungrounded ferris wheel ride of Monroe’s life, that she achieved.

Before I picked up this book I wasn’t a Monroe-fan. Nor was I a Monroe-hater. Monroe didn’t really blip on my radar other than: Why does EVERY CELEBRITY don a blonde wig, a white halter dress, and strike that pose?

Blonde, at least, changed all that. I get the Monroe mystique. She was complicated, and let’s face it, no matter what she claimed publicly, she assiduously avoided motherhood in private. If the rumors of her multiple abortions are true (I have no idea, I’ve never read a biography) that is some committed action to not reproducing.

I have a lay background in feminist theory. I’ve read Friedan, Daly, Dworkin, Greer and others. Oate’s version is supposedly a feminist-interpretation—to an extent? I’m surprised how much it glossed over that particular axis of dichotomy in the Marilyn Monroe/Norma Jean (Jeane) split—to mother or not.

After World War II, many—most?—women went back home to Father Knows Best. Marilyn worked at an airplane factory. I think she didn’t want to go back home. Perhaps a life lived, in part, as a cohort of motherless children, pushed mothering and children to the bottom of her to-do list. Perhaps it got crossed off in that oh-so-secret red diary of hers.

She was offed, committed suicide, died of an accidental drug overdose when she was 36. I’d posit that was a real do-or-die time in her life. Either you sh*t or get off the pot. You have those kids you’ve been professing you want, or you create your life as a woman who will be something other than a mother. Possibly—probably?—Marilyn had “attachment” issues which most commonly manifest as an inability to attach. To a man/husband. Child. But when your “Brand” is sexual availability and compliance, where does the ingenue go when she’s not so new?

The portrayal of Monroe’s affair with JFK in Blonde is brutal. Like UGH! You read it and you’re like: I hate that self-entitled prick!

Although the book is a trudge, I have to commend Oate’s (as usual). Some exquisite poetry lies therein. Especially the long poem at the end, "The Burning Princess".

I was a burning jewel, a comet hurtling earthward.
I was a burning Princess, immortal.
I dived into the dark, into the night.
The last thing I heard was the maddening screams of the crowd.
If ever words captured the essence of Marilyn Monroe & Norma Jean (Jeane) Baker, I’d guess those are them.