Books: The Anatomy of an Icon

Joyce Carol Oates' Blonde offers, if you can believe it, a fictionalized biography of Marilyn Monroe

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Novelists who put real, that is, historical, people in their works seem willfully to be choosing the worst of two worlds. If the fictionalized portrait veers too sharply from what is known about the original model, the author will be rapped for excessive or irresponsible inventiveness. But if the facts of the matter are honored and carefully rehashed, critics and readers will ask why the damn book is called a novel at all.

Joyce Carol Oates, an astute critic as well as an accomplished and prolific novelist, surely knew the trouble she was making for herself in Blonde (HarperCollins; 738 pages; $27.50), a novel based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. The screen actress was already a legend at the time of her death (at age 36 in 1962), and the subsequent flood of biographies, reminiscences and analytical studies has rendered her ubiquitous in the public imagination. What can a novelist, even one working at the top of her form, add to an icon?

The answer, unfortunately, is not very much. As Oates warns readers right at the beginning, "Biographical facts regarding Marilyn Monroe should not be sought in Blonde, which is not intended as a historical document," but she proceeds to provide what seems like thousands of biographical facts about her subject. She changes, for no discernible reason, some details, including the names of the actress's first husband and first Hollywood agent. Hundreds of other people in Monroe's life appear accurately named or identified by easily decoded initials. Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller are "the ex-Athlete" and "the Playwright." You can probably guess who is "the President."

This selective fiddling with history constantly distracts the reader from the fictional surface of Oates' narrative. When a detail looks wrong, at odds with what is known, is Oates inventing it (and if so, to what purpose?), or has she simply made a mistake? Why does she put a video camera in the hands of a fan in 1954? Why does she have the ex-Athlete, musing on his baseball career, think of "playoffs and the Series" when playoffs would not occur until 15 years later?

Such questions may seem niggling, but Oates has asked for them, and for many more like them. Her novel works best during the early years, when her subject is unknown, a pretty but troubled young woman in search of a love that will always elude her. When Marilyn appears in all her platinum glory, the point of Oates' project fades. As a character in the novel says, "The fact was, you never looked at anybody else if you could look at Monroe." Still true.

--By Paul Gray