by Joyce Carol Oates
Ecco/HarperCollins, 738 pp., $27.50
Was there such a person as Marilyn Monroe? The more her image is replicated the more invented it seems; the more her name is employed the more it sounds like the trade name it in fact was. Her face, once a particular example, however shining and glorious, of movie star beauty, is now its unattainable ideal, the template from which all future beauty will descend and which all prior beauty prophesied. The icon in the billowing white dress may historically derive from a scene in The Seven-Year Itch, but it might just as well have been magically imprinted on the lining of a peasant’s cloak. This air of unreality, or super-reality, doesn’t seem restricted to her posthumous career. Her image detaches itself from her films, estimable and lousy alike, and floats free of them. The paradox is that she was as gifted an actor as anyone who ever employed the Method, inhabiting and developing each role well beyond the often crude sketches she was given to work with, and yet each role is partly or completely eclipsed by the iconic image of Marilyn, glowing in the dark.
A mountain of books have already been written to explain or exploit her, from poetry to the rankest trash. The ephemera has never stopped being generated and doesn’t seem as if it ever will. Hers may be the mightiest of the pop-culture religions—only Elvis comes close. Valentino is barely a memory by now; James Dean recedes from view as the years reduce him to three movies and a handful of stills; the dead Sixties rock stars have lost their mass appeal and their worship has narrowed to fringe cults. But Marilyn’s mystery remains evergreen. Her beauty itself is mysterious—it is both real and concocted, just as sexually she appears both vulnerable and overpowering, or maybe it’s that her vulnerability is itself overpowering. She is the very personification of the Hollywood star, intimate with each viewer while as remote as a marble statue. Her life sounds like a parable, or a pulp novel, from the mystery of her parentage to the mystery of her death.
She is a great ready-made for a novelist—far too good, actually. Joyce Carol Oates’s decision to write a novel based upon her life might sound like a sure thing, but it was a huge gamble, fraught with every peril. Marilyn died in 1962, which is a considerable distance away, but were she alive today she would merely be approaching her seventy-fourth birthday. Many of her friends and colleagues—and two out of three husbands—are still around; for the novelist, the legal hazards alone are a minefield. More significant, though, is the hazard of reinventing a life that has been so thoroughly documented that readers with even the most casual interest in Marilyn cannot avoid noticing divergences from the record. This can undermine suspension of disbelief and make for a constant dissonant buzz in the reader’s ear. Another writer …