North Korea, South Korea
by ALEX CARNEVALE
When Norman Mailer wrote his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe, entitled Marilyn, he called himself a psychohistorian. It was his sworn duty to interpret the events of Monroe's life, a task conferred upon him by one of her photographers, who found her the most captivating female subject he had ever represented on film. Mailer wrote, referring to himself in the third person,
At the end, if successful, he would have offered a literary hypothesis of a possible Marilyn Monroe who might actually have lived and fit most of the facts available. If his instincts were good, then future facts discovered about her would have to war with the character he created.
To fill in the facts, Mailer slides into the role of play-by-play broadcaster. Marilyn's was an easy birth, he crows, as though he was peering between her mother's nether regions and grading the smoothness of the exit on a sliding scale. He writes off her father, who ignored Marilyn and later wouldn't take her calls, as the ghost that turned her into the sort of person she was.
He reenacts Marilyn's abuse as a child, giving it the texture of fiction, and presents it as a fait accompli, like any abuser. Throughout he styles his portrait in the present tense, reminding his audience of why the genre of literary biography is so intensely small, highlighted as it is by James Frey, Greg Mortensen and Mary Rambin.
In 1944, an Army photographer noticed Norma Jean and demanded to take her photograph. He was the first to fetishize her, but at least he did not inscribe his obsession in a literary biography. Mailer reveals that "to kiss her is to drift in a canoe," and that Marilyn washed her face 15 times a day. Just 15? Did you want to up that figure to twenty?
It only feels like Mailer spends half the book describing how he imagines Marilyn made love:
She was certainly, by more civilized report, pleasant in bed, but receptive rather than innovative, and somewhat ceremonious - like a geisha, as though the act was a tender turn in a longer passage, and food and conversation and easy laughter were also part of it. A tender description of her by a lover who had not been in love. "Of course I cannot say how she was with other men," he remarked, but she was always just a little remote with me. And very friendly. I liked her."
He finds over fifty men who share some spiritual connection to this woman. Their common thread is that they either wanted to have sex with her or they had sex with her. Afterwards, the men evaluated her in every aspect. The magic of a pin-up lurked deep in their hearts and made an undeniable impression. Did you ever wonder why they ask Penthouse centerfolds what their favorite flavor of ice cream is? It's like that.
After she died in 1962 at the age of 36, Pynchon wrote, "Southern California's special horror notwithstanding, if the world offered nothing, nowhere to support or make bearable whatever her private grief was, then it is that world, and not she, that is at fault."
It takes Mailer 60 pages to get to his inevitable examination of Monroe's intellect. He wants to approach it in a roundabout way because his delay draws attention to how little the subject means to the proceedings. "So what, she was a dunce," he seems to be saying, "this is just another aspect of her I'm feeling very entranced by."
He tells us that "despite her wit, she was not overbearingly bright, and if intellectual ability is comparable to weight lifting, she lifted no weight." It's moments like these which make you realize Norman did not make a habit of checking his metaphors with a friend or colleague. Later, Mailer writes: "She is a lover of books who could not read."
Mailer's theme is that men keep letting this innocent fawn down. Of one competitor for Monroe's affections, he writes, "He is by general description a man of some musical culture and the best of good manners. It is obvious he cared enough for Marilyn to cultivate her possibilities." And on and on.
After the biography was published by Grosset & Dunlap, Arthur Miller came close to suing Mailer, claiming he made up slanders and inserted them in Marilyn's mouth. Miller became convinced that Mailer was in fact recasting himself as Marilyn.
Every compliment to her is then easily read as such, but I don't know about this. Would he then breathlessly recall how great Marilyn was about giving early morning blowjobs when she was in a relash? "Sex on the way to work was the imprimatur of devotion in a Hollywood affair." (Yes, there is a paragraph that concerns this in Marilyn.) There should have been a glossary by sex act, but such exquisite touches Mailer saved for his book-long facial of Picasso.
Confronted with Miller, Mailer charges the playwright with being anti-intellectual: "He is also ambitious, limited and small-minded, an intellectual who is often scorned by critics outside the theater for his intellectual lacks. Nor has he developed to meet such criticisms. He has virtually a terror of the kind of new experience that might open his ideas, so she is enough new experience to last him for a lifetime."
In the beginning and in the end, Mailer cannot really comprehend why Marilyn did not fight back against her abusers. He says that if it had been him, he would have just killed the offending males — perpetrators of a crime against a young girl.
In her notebook she wrote one day, "What am I afraid of? Why am I so afraid? Do I think I can't act? I know I can act but I am afraid. I am afraid and I should not be and I must not be." This holds a special emphasis for Mailer, because he construes this as a literary come-on: that she requires him to exist at all. In other words, the ideal subject.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about Transformers: Dark of the Moon. You can find an archive of his work on This Recording here.
"Always Afraid" - Crystal Antlers (mp3)
"Two-Way Mirror" - Crystal Antlers (mp3)
"Fortune Telling" - Crystal Antlers (mp3)
"Way Out" - Crystal Antlers (mp3)
Two-Way Mirror, the most recent album from Crystal Antlers, was released on July 19th and you can purchase it here.
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