sonk’s #CBR4 Review #24: Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates
This book. Oh my god. This was one of the most incredible reading experiences of my life, and I’ve read a lot of books.
Blonde is, appropriately, about Marilyn Monroe. Or rather, Norma Jeane, a woman (although really more of a girl) who has almost nothing in common with the sex kitten movie star we all know so well. This is a fictionalized account of her life, although Oates pulls a lot from fact. We follow Norma from her childhood in a foster home to her torrid past as a soft-core picture model to her rise as the most famous starlet in the world, all the way through to her downfall and, inevitably, her death. Along the way, we meet the people most important to Norma—lovers, anonymous father, absentee mother, agents and photographers and the people responsible for creating a celebrity.
First of all, I just have to say that Oates is an absolutely phenomenal writer. I was introduced to some of her essays this past year and loved them, but this novel is on a completely different level of brilliance. She is Norma. She inhabits the character like I’ve never seen an author do before. She captures the neuroses and paranoia and joy and child-like innocence and love and fear and power of the most famous woman in the world, rendering her as a person, not simply a gorgeous face and simpering giggle. Norma is hers, completely, and I often had to remind myself that I wasn’t reading her diary, that she wasn’t real (or, at least, that these were not her real thoughts). Oates brings you almost uncomfortably close—even when I put the book down, I felt haunted by Norma Jeane’s voice. The writing is very lyrical and free-flowing—there is little structure in a traditional sense. It’s almost poetic in a lot of places, stream-of-consciousness and completely absorbing. It got overwhelming at times, so much so that I’d have to set down my book and come up for air, reminding myself that the world I’d just been inhabiting wasn’t the real one. Norma broke my heart. I fell in love with her—it would have been incredibly hard not to.
This book isn’t real. I have no way of knowing if this portrayal of Norma even came close to the real woman. But it’s so convincing, so affecting, so powerful, that I choose to believe it is. Oates sees a woman often dismissed as a simpering bimbo as, instead, a powerful performer, an intelligent mind, a fundamentally complex and misunderstood being. Her Norma is perfectly written, and 100% believable.
This was easily the best book I’ve read all year. Put down what you’re reading right now, and go get yourself a copy. You’ll thank yourself.