This August marked the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death. Monroe is a woman who attained icon status early in her short career, and whose role in pop culture has since reached mythical proportions. Published in 2001, Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde reimagines Monroe’s life, from her troubled childhood to her whirlwind rise to stardom, and ultimately, her tragic downfall. Referring to the main figures in Monroe’s life by their roles — The Ex-Athlete, The Dark Prince, The Playwright, The President — the sympathetic portrait Oates paints is one of a naive woman who wants to be loved and also wants to be taken seriously. She is a woman rising up in an era when women in her position were fundamentally powerless and constantly at the mercy of men’s whims.
Disclaimer: I’ve never studied Monroe’s real life in any way, so I have no idea how much of Blonde is real and how much is Oates taking creative liberties, so don’t take my references to events as biography. I do know, however, that most of the beginning of the book is based in fact: her mother was mentally ill, and Norma Jeane Baker came of age in foster homes desperately wanting to know who her father was. In the book, she dies not knowing his identity (questions surround his identity in real-life, too), and this is something that always eats at her. With her beauty and her well-developed figure, Norma Jeane attracted male attention early on; in Blonde, her foster mother marries Norma off at age fifteen to get the pretty girl out of the house and away from the eyes of the foster father. This is the first of many betrayals by people Norma Jeane assumed loved her.
That marriage doesn’t work out; she’s young and never truly feels loved, and yearns to be free. Difficult years are ahead; she tries modeling and acting, but the price is high and degrading. In a moment of extreme desperation stemming from her poverty, she poses for that infamous photo shoot that ends up in Playboy. Oates is blunt in her criticisms of those in power:
Read a few books by Joyce Carol Oates, and you’ll begin to see a few recurring themes: the woman loves to write about traumatic and/or depraved experiences (often of a sexual nature), then make her protagonists crawl painstakingly out of them. Thing is? She’s really, really good at it.
Set in the 1970s, this novella is about Gillian, a student at a small women’s college in Massachusetts who is in love with her poetry professors, an alpha male who excels at manipulating his young female students. She isn’t the first student at the school to become obsessed with Andre and Dorcas, the professor and his artist wife; rumors swirl around the eccentric couple, who let a student into their inner circle each year. As Gillian is gets closer to the couple, she begins to lose herself in a perverse secret world that’s filled with drugs and violent, sexual art.
Beasts was a pleasant surprise for me; I love dark books, but rarely do I read anything so richly Gothic in nature. It was such a strange world to be drawn into; there are secondary story lines that don’t have much to do with the main plot, but their existence serves to create a sustained, deeply unsettling feeling throughout the book. Oates’s writing is seductive and creepy, and although the end is extreme, it just works.
Although Joyce Carol Oates is no stranger to dark subject matter, this particular subject is uncharted territory for her: in February 2008, Oates took her husband of forty-seven years, Raymond Smith, to the emergency room at Princeton Medical Center, where he was promptly admitted with pneumonia. After a week in the hospital, just days before his scheduled release, Smith unexpectedly died from a virulent infection. Oates was left reeling in the aftermath of her sudden widowhood; A Widow’s Story is a memoir about her struggled to cope with the depression and thoughts of suicide she experienced in the wake of her husband’s untimely death.
Oates is a prolific writer–it seems like she publishes at least a book a year–whose writing has a breathless quality to it. Her prose is beautifully descriptive, and whenever I read her books, I often find myself reading various passages over and over again because of the lyricism of her work. Though this is a memoir and not the fiction she is typically known for, the writing in A Widow’s Story is no different in this respect; Oates bares her soul to devastating degrees. Her introspections are meted out carefully, and the reader can’t help but empathize with her sense of utter loss:
“Miss Oates! Thank you so much for coming! We heard about your husband, we’re so very sorry…” […]
How hard this is…maintaining my poise as “JCO” when I am being addressed, so bluntly, as a woman whose husband has died–a “widow.”
How hard too, to change the subject–to deflect the subject–for I must not break down, not now. I know that these women mean well, of couse they mean well, one or another of these women might in fact be widowed herself, but their words leave me stricken and unable to speak at first. Accepting their condolences I must be courteous, gracious. I must understand that their solicitude is genuine, that they have no idea how desperately I would like to not to be reminded of my “loss”–at this time, particularly.
By degrees then “JCO” returns, or resumes–the precarious moment has passed.
By now I’ve seen several interviews of Oates talking about this book. She’d originally intended this to be a widow’s handbook. Indeed, there is much to be done after the death of a spouse; sorting out legal matters–the will, estate matters, etc.–proved to be a particularly unnerving experience for Oates.