Queen of Desire

Next Aug. 5 will be the 30th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death, but despite biographies, TV documentaries, and the meditations of Norman Mailer, Monroe remains, by and large, a proper noun meaning legend. Which is why Sam Toperoff’s novel, Queen of Desire, comes as such a surprise. His Monroe is a total fiction (”the reader should not interpret any of the material as factual”), yet for once she seems real, authentic, knowable, a woman whose inner life became for the novelist ”so much stronger than (her) life out there, it got a little scary.”

Each of the novel’s 13 sections is self-contained, an episode in a tragic serial, with every chapter break signaling a leap ahead of several years. The aircraft factory worker becomes the photographer’s model, who becomes the housewife, who becomes the jazz-club singer, who becomes the calendar girl, the Hollywood starlet, the movie star, and finally the ”sex goddess.” But from the first glimpse of Marilyn (as an ethereally beautiful 9-year-old coloring with crayons) to the last (as a 36-year-old insomniac, washing down Seconal and Dexedrine with bourbon), she remains fundamentally unchanged — ”a complex combination of exhibitionist and introvert,” determined ”to create something from the material of self.”

She is also — and here’s her tragedy, according to Toperoff — a sexual Rorschach test, the projection of Everyman’s ”irreducible desire: serve me, understand me, stimulate me, touch me, console me, help me.”

Sounds heavy? It’s not. Toperoff rarely lets his thesis interrupt his storytelling, or slow it down, and while he occasionally pushes a vignette too far, almost into surrealism (for example, when a studio hair colorist’s recollections about Jean Harlow somehow end up compelling Monroe to perform a ritual striptease), the narrative is always hypnotic. Whether she’s flirting with Frank Lloyd Wright (at 89, still a sly rogue) while Arthur Miller fumes or outbluffing Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift, and John Huston in an all-night poker game or — in the novel’s most deliciously preposterous comic episode — enlisting the aid of Bob Hope to escape the lustful clutches of Indonesia’s President Sukarno, this is a wonderfully vital, enormously likable Marilyn. How close Queen of Desire comes to imagining the real woman is anyone’s guess. But I’ll take this version over the packaged legend any day. B+

Queen of Desire
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