The misfit's marathon

Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates (Fourth Estate, £16.99, 738pp)
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The Independent Culture

Yet again I must use the word Stakhanovite. How else to describe the heroic output of Joyce Carol Oates? There are rumours that her publishers have warehouses of unpublished manuscripts. It's not that they're no good, just that she writes faster than they can publish. I see her, spectacles steamed up, bashing out the foolscap on a red-hot machine.

She may be knocking them out like soft mick, but her quality control can't be faulted. Oates has produced some extraordinarily good novels, but her work is thinly represented on the bookshelves of Britain. High-octane, fault-line people are her speciality - dodgy politicians, troubled adolescents. She writes with speed and passion. Because it is Bitter and Because it is my Heart and What I Lived For come high on my list. Blonde, a factional account of the life of Marilyn Monroe, won't lag far behind.

The book starts with Death arriving as a delivery boy on a bicycle to the Brentwood home of MM. We return to that scene in the penultimate pages, having watched the child Norma Jeane turn into the woman Marilyn. You can see why Professor Oates, with her previous form, was drawn to write of this woman.

Daughter of the semi-demented Gladys, Norma Jeane is tantalised through a miserable childhood with veiled allusions to the identity of her father. A glossy photograph is shown to her. Gladys drops hints that the father is a bright star in the Hollywood firmament but never gives up his name to her desperate daughter. Oates does, though - and it is a surprising one.

We follow Norma Jeane from the claustrophobic misery of life with Gladys, and years in an orphanage and foster care, to life as a very young war bride. Oates is telling the story of 20th-century, white America through the life of one troubled, instinctive genius. With each new stage in her life, each new lover, husband and film, another layer is added to the make-up of Marilyn; and another connection broken to the child Norma Jeane. It is a life told through the camera lens, from the time she is spotted working in a munitions factory to her last film: a life of contrivance and artefact lived by a woman in desperate search for truth.

Make-up as metaphor powders the book. Norma Jeane's first husband has a part-time job as an embalmer's assistant. He brings home make-up, gets the scrubbed Christian Scientist Norma Jeane to put it on, so he can take photos to pass round at work. Later we see Marilyn created and destroyed before mirrors. When that creation that starts to fall apart: "The Monroe crew went to work on her like resuscitating a corpse... not always the bitch would be turned into an angel, but usually."

Oates shifts the viewpoint. Sometimes Marilyn is the narrator, sometimes another character. Sometimes the narrator hates Marilyn, sometimes pities her, often loves her, but doesn't gloss over the damage Monroe did. We get the 65 attempts to deliver the line "It's me, Sugar," during Some Like It Hot; Clark Gable's fatal heart attack, thought by many to have been brought on from the strain of working with Marilyn on The Misfits; and the misery inflicted on Arthur Miller during their briefly happy, mainly wretched, marriage. Even the singing of "Happy Birthday Mr President", now billed as a triumph of sexiness, is depicted, as it was: a desperate woman "drunk and coked to the gills", crowbarred into a dress she couldn't afford, singing to a man who didn't give a damn.

This is a fine piece of work, written with something of the frantic inspiration with which Monroe's life was lived. If you haven't read Joyce Carol Oates before, start here, and now.

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