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Beyond The 'Blonde': A Look At Marilyn's Inner Life

Manuel Munoz's first novel is What You See in the Dark.

Think Julianne Moore's take on Sarah Palin, or Meryl Streep's depiction of Margaret Thatcher.

Actors in biopics have a major leg up on writers when it comes to developing character. Even casual viewers can judge the performance a success if it mimics what we remember of the public persona.

This isn't to say that all Jamie Foxx had to do to play Ray Charles was find the right pair of shades and tilt his head at the proper angle. Yet sometimes movie performances do give the aura of effortlessness: more costume than character.

Historical novels give up the props, the hairdos, the prosthetic noses and the accents and aim for something different: inner life. It's one of the reasons I find Joyce Carol Oates' Marilyn Monroe novel from the year 2001, Blonde, such an audacious book.

Oates takes great pains to remind readers that this is fiction, not biography. But it's still hard to approach the book without preconceived ideas of Marilyn Monroe as historical figure or pop icon. With the note to her readers, Oates kills the illusion even before she starts it, but she's in on the conundrum and power of the actress — a woman born under one name, but dying under another, an American fairy-tale heroine who refuses to disappear.

Manuel Munoz is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Arizona.
/ Algonquin Press
Algonquin Press
Manuel Munoz is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Arizona.

Blonde mimics the large scope of a biography: We get her life and death, as well as the rise and fall of her stardom, and our curiosity is sated by the language of tabloid, and the privacy of diaries. Flamboyant and energetic, the novel assembles everything from gossip to pinups to present the life of a woman who, in the end, was overshadowed by her onscreen persona.

Oates knows what attracts us to the life of a star: We get the humble beginnings, the first foray into modeling and then the streak of luck that brings the bigger-than-life movie roles (a cameo in All About Eve, a major lead in the potboiler Niagara and her triumph in Some Like It Hot). Monroe's marriages to Arthur Miller and Joe DiMaggio are given wide space as well, and these are the sections where Oates best shows us how Monroe valiantly tried to become a self-determined woman, even when the men in her life wouldn't allow it.

There's a famous photo of Monroe, alone, reading James Joyce's Ulysses. It's a rare glimpse at her interiority, maybe the woman she wanted to be, far from the image of the "dumb blonde" that dominated her life.

There's no spoiler here in discussing the end of the novel — when we witness Monroe's infamous birthday salute to President Kennedy, we already know that Oates must take us to its lurid, tragic conclusion. The result is devastating nonetheless, driven mostly by a sense of shared intimacy with a star who remains, in the end, completely out of reach.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman with production assistance from Andrew Otis.

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Manuel Munoz