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Monday, January 29, 2018

Blonde (1999) by Joyce Carol Oates

Portrait of Monroe aged 20, taken at the Radioplane Munitions Factory
Marilyn Monroe was originally "discovered" working in a factory during World War II.
Book Review
Blonde (1999)
by Joyce Carol Oates

  I think everyone wants Joyce Carol Oates to be a canonical author, but it could be that the decision of which, if any, of her actual books is representative is very much in doubt, primarily because she is not done yet but also because she has been so prolific in her career that even a motivated general interest reader would have trouble keeping pace with only her fictional output, without touching her also notable non-fiction work. However two books stand out, THEM, her break out book and only National Book Award winner and Blonde, her "fictional biography" of Marilyn Monroe, which was a prize winner finalist, a bestseller and by far the longest book Oates has ever written (730 pages).  Oates actually has four books in the first edition of 1001 Books, but she lost two of them in the 2008 revision, leaving her with Them and Blonde.

  Reading Blonde, it's a wonder that Oates didn't write more novels with this kind of scope.  Perhaps she was aided by the fact that she was writing about a series of relatively well documented events, Marilyn Monroe's rise to movie super-stardom and untimely death at the age of 36.  You wouldn't have to read Blonde that Monroe suffered horribly, no artistic license required to show that.  The mere facts of her life and the nature of her death are a clear testament to the misery that success can inflict on a person.

  What stood out to me is that Blonde works almost as well as a biography of post World War II Hollywood/America as it does of Monroe.  Oates writes about Los Angeles with a practiced hand.  Her descriptions of  Monroe's childhood in Los Angeles capture that place and time as well as any non-fiction history book I've read.  Oates does not shy away from the messy details of drug abuse, the casting couch and her relationships and marriages.

  It is a powerful story and it could be that this is one of those situations where the truth was stranger than any fiction, but this fiction is pretty strange, and I think, very true in capturing the woman underneath the myth. 

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