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Book Review: Misfit by Adam Braver

Misfit by Adam Braver (Tin House Books; 304 pages; $15.95).

 

            Marilyn Monroe was not born; she was the creation of both Norma Jean Baker and Hollywood.  Marilyn became one of the most iconic figures of all time yet possessed a fragile, insecure psyche.  Adam Braver’s novel Misfit explores key moments of Marilyn’s past and how they shaped her and, ultimately, how they destroyed her.  Braver’s story is a character study of the twentieth century’s most prolific sex symbol who saw herself as a misfit.  Braver shows that Marilyn should have won Best Actress for starring in the role of a lifetime—playing Marilyn Monroe.

 

Misfit, Braver says, “should not be read as a biography, or as a record of actual events.”  Instead, it is a work of fiction, “meant to examine a struggle for identity in a very public world, and the rewards and pitfalls of conforming to meet others’ expectations.”

Braver concentrates on the last weekend of Marilyn’s life: the two days she spent at Frank Sinatra’s resort on the border between California and Nevada, the Cal Neva Lodge.  In a series of flashbacks, Braver illustrates the moments that defined her.  His novel combines fact with fiction to help us better understand both the woman and the myth.

 

Even as a young girl, Braver maintains, Norma Jean felt like a misfit.  After her mentally unstable mother, Gladys, was institutionalized, Norma Jean was passed around from relative to relative and from orphanage to orphanage.  Sexual abuse occurred at a young age.  Norma Jean clung to the image of Clark Gable, an ideal man, surely a gentleman.  But Gable was a fantasy.  No wonder that she married twenty-one-year-old aircraft plant worker Jim Dougherty at the tender age of sixteen.  Norma Jean longed for a distraction, and she thought marriage to Jim could provide a means to escape her life.

 

While married to Jim, Norma Jean first slipped into the role of Marilyn Monroe.  In 1945, Norma Jean worked at Timm Aircraft plant at Metropolitan Airport in Van Nuys, California.  Norma Jean is so desperate to be liked and to be noticed that when she tells her fellow workers, mostly women, about herself, “her stories don’t always match.”  At the plant, she does not stand out.  She is just another woman working outside the home to support the war effort.

 

One day, though, her life changes.  Captain Ronald Reagan arranges for a spread of pretty girls working on airplane fuselages to appear in Yank magazine.  “That kind of story is sure to raise morale.”  The photographer, a young army private, starts snapping photographs of the women.  He gets to Norma Jean.

 

“Then,” Braver writes, “something curious happens.  The private snaps a photo of her.  And then he snaps another.”  He is transfixed by her.  “Not only does he stop moving down the line, it’s as though he’s been walled off.  He drops his bag to the floor and kicks it forward; his legs go into a horseback-riding stance, and he brings the camera up to his face with both hands and starts clicking.”  He takes “one picture after the next.”

 

Under the photographer’s attention, Norma Jean becomes someone else.  “It’s like her bones have settled into something more solid,” Braver writes.  “Her walk is poised.”  The male workers “take notice like something around her is all sexed up.”  The little girl look vanishes, “leaving a womanly confidence that is at once stunning, alluring, and a little frightening.”  It is as if Norma Jean has “grown a little larger.”  Those around her stare.  Norma Jean is not Norma Jean anymore.  She has become Marilyn Monroe.

 

And so it began.  Later, more and more photos appeared in magazines.  She eventually divorced Jim and went on to make movies.  Marriages and divorces to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller soon followed.  Both men had an image of her that she just could not live up to.  DiMaggio wanted her to be a housewife and perhaps mother.  Miller wanted her to be an intellectual.  She tried and moved to New York with him.  Marilyn studied at the Actors Studio, but she still felt objectified and inadequate.  In her eyes, she was always less than.

 

In Braver’s story, we see the enormous amount of work it took for Marilyn to be Marilyn.  She could be anything or anybody, but her role took preparation.  Often, she did what she thought people expected her to do.  For example, while filming The Misfits, the movie Miller wrote for Marilyn, she was late for scenes.  She was also popping pills.  She played the diva, but it was not a natural role for her.  She spent most of her time not preparing for her parts in films but preparing for her role as Marilyn.  Sometimes it was frustrating for her, especially when the men in her life wanted her to be someone she did not want to be.

 

The most dependable man in Marilyn’s life, Braver implies, was Frank Sinatra.  Sinatra accepted Marilyn for who she was.  As Braver writes, Sinatra was the “one solid thing for her.”  If you are hoping to find a flashback that explores Marilyn’s relationship with President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert F. Kennedy, you will be disappointed.  Braver avoids mentioning any kind of relationship between Marilyn and the Kennedy brothers in Misfit, which is a real shame.  While such allegations can be controversial, ignoring them leaves a hole in this novel.  The Kennedy brothers, surely, shaped her just as much as the other men in her life.  Braver seems to be avoiding controversy by ignoring this subject.  Their inclusion would have made a good book an even better one.

 

During that weekend, Sinatra saw how fragile Marilyn was.  He ordered her to “pack her bags and go home.”  But even he could see she was spiraling out of control from alcohol and drugs.

 

The weekend she spent at Sinatra’s resort was the last weekend of her life.  On August 5, 1962, Marilyn was found dead, naked in her bed, by her psychiatrist.  The coroner ruled it a probable suicide.  In the 1967 film Valley of the Dolls, Sharon Tate played the pill-popping actress Jennifer North.  Upon learning she has breast cancer, Jennifer overdoses on sleeping pills.  Before she dies, Jennifer says bitterly, “All I have is a body.”  Marilyn could relate.

 

As Braver writes, the embalming fluid caused Marilyn’s breast tissue to deflate, making her chest “flat as a twelve-year-old boy.”  Mary, a co-owner of the mortuary where her body rests, is horrified.  “I can’t send her out like this,” Mary cries.  “Not in front of Mr. DiMaggio.  Or her family.”  So Mary sets out to recreate Marilyn Monroe.  She gathers all the cotton she can find from the supply cabinet and fills Marilyn’s bosom with handfuls of cotton.  “Now that looks like Marilyn Monroe,” Mary affirms.  The embalmer initially thought it would make her body look freakish, but he is astounded as the cotton “makes her look strangely more lifelike…”  The embalmer cannot help but think of DiMaggio and how he will feel as he looks at Marilyn for the last time.

 

DiMaggio, the embalmer believes, will be pleased with how good Marilyn looks.  He thinks of what will go through former baseball star’s head as he looks at his former wife.  DiMaggio, the embalmer thinks, will blame her death on Hollywood.  He “can’t help but suspect that this version of her actually is the one Mr. DiMaggio wants to remember, and that has got to be a killer because it means he, Joe DiMaggio, is a part of it too.”

 

At the end, Marilyn is just a body.  To a lot of people, though, that is all she ever was.  But Marilyn was much more complicated than that.  Fact or fiction or something in between, Braver’s Misfit is fascinating.  When Marilyn exits stage left, you will be on your feet shouting “Bravo!”

 

 

 

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Christopher Bollen Knows How To Set The Mood

Christopher Bollen, Lightning People (Soft Skull Press; 368 pages; $25).

 

            Despite what many readers think, debut novels are not easy to write.  Common mistakes freshman authors make run the gamut from implausible storylines to stock characters to awkward dialogue to clumsy organization.  A good editor helps, but often a first-time novelist either has that certain something or he does not.  That kind of talent cannot be taught; it is innate.  Christopher Bollen proves with his debut novel Lightning People that he has that magic and then some.

 

Setting is not everything, but place ranks high on this reviewer’s list of what can turn a good book into a great one.  Bollen lives in New York City; thus, he knows the city well and it shows.  From the very first page, Bollen knows how to set the mood.

 

Bollen opens his novel with a very real phenomenon: lightning strikes.  Through his protagonist, Joseph Guiteau, Bollen writes, “The Manhattan skyline has changed since I moved here from Cincinnati at the age of eighteen.  What no one seems willing to mention is that before the World Trade Center fell, lightning rarely struck any parts of Manhattan other than the towers themselves….”

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Coincidence or Fate?: “The Lightning People” by Christopher Bollen

The men in Joseph Guiteau’s family all met a tragic fate at the young age of thirty-four. Guiteau fled his Cincinnati, Ohio, home in an attempt to escape his tragic family history. He moved to New York City and became an actor. His thirty-fourth birthday is fast approaching in Christopher Bollen’s debut novel The Lightning People.

Bollen’s New York City is a metropolis transformed by the World Trade Center attacks, and his characters still bear the scars of that terrible day. The loss of the towers even affects the weather. Midwesterners transplanted to Manhattan are dying from lightning strikes. Guiteau believes he knows why, “The Manhattan skyline has changed since I moved here from Cincinnati at the age of eighteen. What no one seems willing to mention is that before the World Trade Center fell, lightning rarely struck any parts of Manhattan other than the towers themselves….” The towers served as lightning rods. Without them as protection, lightning is striking many young men and women, primarily from the Midwest. Is this coincidence or fate?

One thing you should know about Guiteau is that he is a conspiracy theorist, a trait he picked up from his mother, an American history professor. Guiteau goes to meetings where he meets others of his kind and where he discusses old and new theories. During a meeting, he meets a mysterious woman with a strange story of her own. Ultimately, their fates are intertwined. Bollen introduces other characters, as well. Guiteau marries Del, a snake expert at the Bronx Zoo so she can become a United States citizen. Del has a tragic history of her own; her former boyfriend was killed years earlier in a car accident. She then became involved with Raj, the brother of her best friend and college roommate, Madi. William, Guiteau’s actor friend, completes the circle. All Bollen’s characters have their own mini-dramas, making for several intriguing sub-plots that lead a suspenseful feel to the story. The Lightning People truly is a plot-driven novel.

Employing themes such as coincidence vs. fate, multiculturalism, love, and betrayal, Bollen creates complex, believable characters with the practice of a seasoned novelist. This does not feel like a first novel. He skillfully intersects multiple lives in shocking ways. Critics have compared the novel to the movie Crash, set in Los Angeles. However, I feel Bollen’s New York City works even better than LA to explore traversing lives. New York is built up, while LA is sprawling. New Yorkers primarily walk wherever they go, while people in LA drive. Interconnecting characters have a better chance of coming into contact in a city like New York than they would in LA. Bollen also gives readers fascinating facts about snakes. I do sense a sequel involving Del and snake research or at least I hope so (Christopher Bollen, are you reading this?)

Will Guiteau die at thirty-four or will he be the first to escape his fate? That is something for readers to find out themselves. My only criticism is that the fates of the characters are all foregone conclusions. The reader will understand what I mean, I suspect, after reading the novel. The true beauty is how Bollen tells the story. Overall, it is an astounding first novel with brilliant plot development and superbly crafted characters. Bollen does not seem like a first-time novelist. Keep your eye on him, dear reader, for he’s going places.

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