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Walking with Norma Jean 

Joyce Carol Oates' bio-novel deftly imagines the mythical star's fabled life and death

A retired costume designer once told me about a visit he made to a theater where Arthur Miller was directing a play starring his then-wife, Marilyn Monroe.

Close to the actress, my friend could see that her face and body were covered with a fine blond down which, when caught by the glare of Klieg lights and flashbulbs, gave Marilyn her characteristic glow.

How did Norma Jean Baker -- pretty but not a flawless beauty, a foster child, a high school dropout, and by all accounts a borderline personality -- become Marilyn Monroe? Cosmetic surgery and the combined effort of studio experts in elocution, deportment, costuming and publicity certainly helped, but wasn't something else at work?

Early in Joyce Carol Oates' massive biographical novel, Blonde, Norma Jean's factory worker husband looks with astonishment at a series of naughty pictures he has taken of his wife:

This was Norma Jean, his wife? Though she'd been squirming in embarrassment as Buddy hung over their bed, clicking away, few of the snapshots suggested a bold complicitous girl with a sly, leering smile; though Buddy knew very well that Norma Jean had been miserable, he persuaded himself that she looked, in several of the snapshots at least, as if she'd been enjoying the attention.

Her "magic friend" is the storybook name Joyce Carol Oates' Norma Jean gives to the potent image she coaxes from the camera, the mirror and the makeup table.

Much of Blonde is narrated in the language of fable, both the Brothers Grimm and the Hollywood kind; the affinity between the two types of fairy tales can be a tired movie magazine conceit, but for Oates, their common elements are crucial to Marilyn's story, perhaps because the actress saw her own life in those terms.

The humble birth, the absent noble father, the mother who is both Good Fairy and Evil Stepmother, the life-changing gift that can just as mysteriously appear as disappear, the tragic death -- Norma Jean saw her life as myth and magic, Oates suggests, because her own gift was intuitive and because her sense of herself as a performer was deeply ingrained in her own psychic survival.

Midway through the novel, a frustrated Richard Widmark (an old-school, one-take professional) fumes as he watches this amateurish actress, with her pesky questions about "motivation" and her constant lateness, steal every scene in his movie:

"Either she can't act at all or she's acting all the time. Her entire life is an act, like breathing."

What really pissed Widmark off, [she] had to do every ... scene over and over. This breathy stubborn voice -- "Please, I can do better, I know." ... Was that crappy little melodrama worth it?

Maybe she was fighting for her life, but he wasn't.

The Method, that '50s religion, with its conviction that the actor must live his role and that acting is a heroic search for existential meaning, is a constant in the novel. Many chapters begin, heavily, with epigraphs from Method texts, real or imagined by the author. Blonde's strongest chapter, "The Ex-Athlete and the Blond Actress: The Date," starts with an ambitious epigraph from a non-existent work -- "When you believe you are acting, you will suddenly discover your truest self" -- and goes on to weave the historical and the imagined.

Told in the form of a dossier filed by an FBI agent, it is an extraordinary retelling of the first date between Marilyn and her future husband, Joe DiMaggio, with the public figures behaving like archetypes of themselves. Here is DiMaggio:

Several times, shyly yet boldly, with the air of a man stealing a base, the Ex-Athlete let his hand fall onto the Blond Actress's ...

It was noted, as the Ex-Athlete passed through the candlelit interior of the restaurant, that he smelled of a strong cologne, of whisky and tobacco. His hair smelled of an oily lotion. His breath smelled of meat.

And here is Marilyn:

As she made her urgent yet sleepwalking way throughout the restaurant, escorted by the shaken maitre d', the floating platinum-blond hair, the soft-sculpted female shape inside the clinging jersey dress with a multitude of shivery pleats, every eye in the restaurant fixed upon her rear, the remarkable movements of her lower body, as in a long tracking shot in which the camera follows, at a discreet distance, the yearning eye of an invisible and anonymous voyeur.

Marilyn's melodramatic life has been the quarry for so many works that it is probably impossible to tell her story straight, and at anything less than epic length. Oates' book weighs in at 738 pages.

"Ooh, I loathe her! She writes all the graffiti in the women's bathrooms and all the graffiti in the men's!" jealously whined Truman Capote about Joyce Carol Oates, probably the most effortlessly prolific writer we have. A work of the scope and length of Blonde is bound to contain a little graffiti, but it is a few scratches against a very impressive monument.

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