In the perverse manner all too typical of her singular career, Oates follows up one of her best novels'last year’s plaintive Broke Heart Blues'with one of the worst she (or any other contemporary “serious” author, for that matter) has ever committed to paper. It’s a bloated, humorless fictional speculation on the life and career of Marilyn Monroe that mixes together canned US and film history, fanzine gossip, and heavy-breathing fantasy. The story begins in early-1930s Hollywood, where young Norma Jeane [sic] Mortensen endures the manic-depressive attentions of her self-dramatizing mother Gladys, who’ll spend most of her subsequent life in mental hospitals. The novel then becomes a rapid-fire tour of “MM’s” troubled adolescence (as a foster child and precocious sexpot), early marriage (to an ardent young husband she breathlessly pet-names “Daddy”), first success as a model (often nude), and very gradual conquest of Hollywood, and hopeful, doomed relationships with eminent figures coyly identified as the Ex-Athlete, the Playwright, and the President. Pretentious epigraphs from Freud, Stanislavsky, and Emily Dickinson, among others, sprinkled throughout the text, cannot disguise this really dreadful book’s eccentric blend of sleaze and turgidity. Dime-store psychology and portentous symbolism abound: Norma Jeane’s childhood dreams of the “Dark prince” Who Will Take Her Away From All This are emphatically linked to the father she never knew, and with Death, who comes for her when she’s only 36. And the Oates’s leaden prose (think Jackie Collins crossed with Thorstein Veblen) is all too frequently susceptible to such horrors as the following (whose author should burn forever in pulp-fiction hell for perpetrating it): “Gamely the Blond Actress began to stroke the President’s penis, as one might stroke a charming but unruly pet while its owner looked on proudly.” Whatever Monroe’s sins and limitations were, they didn’t merit this contemptible insult to her memory. Oates should be ashamed of herself.

Pub Date: April 1, 2000

ISBN: 0-06-019607-6

Page Count: 752

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2000

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A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.


The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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