The Fairest in the Land: Blonde and Black Water, the Nonfiction Novels of Joyce Carol Oates

By Warner, Sharon Oard | Studies in the Novel, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

The Fairest in the Land: Blonde and Black Water, the Nonfiction Novels of Joyce Carol Oates


Warner, Sharon Oard, Studies in the Novel


"In the majority of the [fairy] tales, to be a heroine in even a limited sense requires extreme youth and extreme physical beauty; it would not be sufficient to be merely beautiful, one must be 'the greatest beauty in the kingdom'-'the fairest in the land.'"--Oates, "In Olden Times" 249

I begin by way of anecdote. In the early summer of 1962, during those last weeks in the life of Marilyn Monroe, I was ten years old and living in Dallas, Texas. My memories of that year are sketchy, but a singular moment has stayed with me. I was sitting inside a stifling car, waiting dutifully for my mother to emerge from a convenience store, in all likelihood a 7-Eleven. While my mother made her purchase, probably cigarettes, I cast about for a way to please her, no save her. Only the year before, she'd jumped from a moving car, and though she hadn't managed to kill herself, the fall did result in a skull fracture and a coma. I had reason to be nervous each time we set out in the car.

Therefore, when she got back into the driver's seat and turned the key in the ignition, I blurted out something so absurd and improbable that I flinch to admit it even today. "Don't worry, Mommy," I said, apropos of nothing.

"When I grow up, I'm going to be Miss America." My voice was all conviction. Already, I was determined to transform myself into a beautiful princess, me--a plain child with no natural talents, a bespectacled bookworm of a girl. I was struck by the certainty that I could do this for her, that I must do this for her.

On August 4, Marilyn Monroe would die of a drug overdose, but on that early summer day in 1962, the sun must have been shining in Los Angeles, just as it was in Dallas. Not to say the world was altogether beautiful, but it was certainly bright. Mary Jo Kopechne had just finished college. Joyce Carol Oates and her new husband Raymond had found work in Detroit and were thrilled to be leaving Beaumont, Texas, behind. The future, we believed, might well be better than the past, and why not? We could fly to the moon! John F. Kennedy was our president.

Although Blonde and Black Water have much in common, one difference is readily apparent. In the jumble of books and papers currently crowding my desk, the short novel Black Water can be hidden by something as insubstantial as a pile of notes. A slim 154 pages in paperback, Black Water, is a petite book, small enough to slip in a purse. The largish font is easy to read, and the margins are generous. Even a slow reader--and I am downright poky--can manage it in one long gulp. Not so with Blonde. A weighty tome, the novel Blonde is apparent no matter the clutter. Size alone identifies it. In terms of heft, only my dictionary and thesaurus can compete.

As it happens, both novels began as shorter projects and grew beyond the confines Oates imagined for them. In the Joyce Carol Oates biography, Invisible Writer, Greg Johnson explains that the novel Black Water started as a story based on the accident at Chappaquiddick, the 1969 tragedy that took the life of Mary Jo Kopechne and ended the presidential aspirations of Senator Edward Kennedy. But the short story of the "minutes/moments before death by drowning" (382) became a novel, one designed to be read in the length of time it takes the heroine to die by suffocation. As Oates explained to Ramona Koval in a 2002 interview, Mary Jo Kopechne didn't drown:

   She was trapped in the car. She was trapped in such a way
   that there was an air pocket. She was not drowning. Ultimately,
   she probably suffocated.... And this black water, as I imagine,
   this black water dripping down, but she was able to live for
   hours before the water actually suffocated her. (11)

Oates had long been fascinated by the events of Chappaquiddick, but she was impelled to start work on the book in the summer of 1991, around the time William Kennedy Smith was acquitted on rape charges and the great Thurgood Marshall passed away. …

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