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Joyce Carol Oates: From Alice to Marilyn

By Stuart Mitchner

In her introduction to the 20th Anniversary Edition of Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde, literary critic Elaine Showalter calls it her “most ambitious novel,” in which she “uncannily channels” Marilyn Monroe’s “inner voice and demands that the star be given recognition, compassion, and respect.”

If you have ever fallen in love with Norma Jeane and Marilyn, the Girl and the Vision, it’s hard to believe that any mortal writer could produce such a book without exploiting so exploitable a human subject. But here the nature of exploitation is a given, like wind and rain, sun and shadow, and the book becomes a weather event driven by Oates’s gale force prose. There’s even an underground wind of sorts in one of the best-known images of the star, which Oates describes in Blonde and quotes from on her website Celestial Timepiece: “She’s standing with bare legs apart on a New York subway grating. Her blond head is thrown rapturously back as an updraft lifts her full, flaring skirt, exposing white cotton panties.”

Joyce as Alice

It makes a curious kind of sense that Joyce Carol Oates’s circuitous road to Marilyn may have begun with Lewis Carroll’s Alice. One of the most eye-catching Princeton Magazine covers is the one for the August 2011 issue, based on the inventive layout by Jeff Tryon, Jorge Naranjo, and photographer Andrew Wilkinson for my article, “Alice’s American Cousin.”

It’s always helpful when the subject of a profile arrives with an interesting back story, and it’s hard to imagine a more inviting mixture to work with than Alice in Wonderland’s life-changing impact on the author of Wonderland (1971), the final volume in The Wonderland Quartet, comprised of A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967), Expensive People (1968), and the National Book Award winner them (1969). What appealed to me was the thought that the Alice-Joyce connection would make it possible for readers to see beyond the formidably productive JCO to an 8-year-old girl enchanted by her paternal grandmother’s gift of the 1946 Junior Library edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

In The Faith of a Writer (2003), Oates calls her Grandmother Blanche’s gift “the great treasure of my childhood and the most profound literary influence of my life.” It was “love at first sight,” not only with Alice (“with whom I identified unquestionably”) but with “the phenomenon of Book.” Six years later, Grandmother Blanche gave Joyce her first typewriter, a Remington portable.

One of the highlights of “Alice’s American Cousin” is Dallas Piotrowski’s colorful reworking of the Tenniel sketch showing Alice “opening out like the largest telescope there ever was,” having just eaten the Eat Me cake. The altered Alice has a pencil in one hand and a book in the other and a face resembling that of the grown up author whose grandmother sent her into the world of slings and arrows armed with a Remington. Oates’s title for the picture of herself as Alice is “Curiouser and Curiouser,” which is what Alice is saying as the cake has its way with her.

“The Gravedigger’s Daughter”

In the years after her grandmother’s death, Oates learned that Blanche’s father had killed himself and his wife and that Blanche had concealed her Jewish heritage, discoveries reimagined in The Gravedigger’s Daughter (2007), which was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.

Respect for JCO’s literary stature is evident in the high-profile review that her 36th work of fiction received in the New York Times. It’s as if reviewer Lee Siegel is giving Oates her due as a force of nature even as she quibbles: “When all is said and done, when you have contended with the hampering undertow of Joyce Carol Oates’s flaws, there comes a moment when you surrender to the overpowering force of Joyce Carol Oates’s virtues. You yield to Oates much as her beleaguered heroines yield to the relentless, intoxicating strength of her dangerous men.” Another eminently quotable keepsake line follows: “Oates’s routes of excess often lead to rambling mansions of truly apprehended life. On the other side of her sentimentality lies a rare intensity of feeling; driving her melodrama is a heightened receptivity to tragedy. Her stereotypes fall, like overripe fruit, from the fertile boughs of her archetypes.”


At this writing, JCO’s latest novel, Babysitter, has attracted typically conflicted responses. Writing in the August 21 Guardian, Julie Myerson says, “As ever, Oates’s prose — almost insolently alive, littered with italics and exclamation marks, switching apparently recklessly back and forth through place and time — would seem to break all the rules. The result is nothing less than magical, a piece of work that is light yet dense, frenzied in its detail yet somehow also cool, measured and abstract. She’ll happily devote five pages to what can only amount to a minute or two of a character’s experience (one reason her novels are rarely short) but in so doing will take you straight to the heart of a moment — or, as here, the agonizingly strung-out minutes of a sexual attack — without remorse.”

Immersed in “Blonde”

Discussing the Netflix film adaptation of Blonde in a July 10, 2022 Variety interview, Oates said “Andrew Dominik is a very brilliant director. I think he succeeded in showing the experience of Norma Jeane Baker from her perspective, rather than see it from the outside, the male gaze looking at a woman. He immersed himself in her perspective.”

After noting that Blonde was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, Celestial Timepiece quotes the statement from that year’s Pulitzer jury: The book “is audacious, excessive, unstintingly serious and even severe in what its intellectual and narrative curiosity force upon the reader. Risking self-defeat, this ‘radically distilled’ life of Marilyn Monroe seeks to deliver a grander vision of what is right and wrong in human conduct and motive.” There are references to “its variety of fictive effects and narrative voices, its muscularity,” its “outlandish authority.” If the novel “eventually sheds light on Monroe’s life, it does so not as a subtext to history, but because of its warrant as a galvanizing act of imagination.”

The best way to read Blonde is suggested by Elaine Showalter, in the context of its human subject, with “compassion and respect.” What was once read as “sensationalizing the story of Monroe,” Showalter writes, now must be seen “as a passionate and prophetic defense.”