Book Review

Norma Jeane Baker of Troy by Anne Carson

great little recent book from one of literature's best

Norma Jeane Baker of Troy is great. i read it, fast, earlier today (Nov 14th?) and I will read it again, slow, as soon as I can.

This is the first book I’ve read illicitly in years.

I suppose it wasn’t illicit in any real sense (it’s been a long time since reading was something I was chastised for tho it used to be it used to be it did), as I realise that legally I’m allowed to take a 20 minute break in the middle of a ten hour working day to sit down and read, but as I’m well over a decade into a career in hospitality, a break isn’t something that often happens.

What I did was, having ensured all the tasks I had to complete pre-service were complete, I went and found a place to sit within the building that – though it wasn’t explicitly hiding (i.e. it wasn’t behind a locked door or anywhere I shouldn’t have been) – it was consciously out of the sightlines of everywhere in the building anyone else was likely to be. So, in this secretish seat, I sat in perfect silence and I read the entirety of this 2019 Anne Carson book, published by New Directions and an adaptation of Helen by Euripides and I read it all tho, tbh, there was a lot of it I didn’t understand.

Like, I read Norma Jean Baker of Troy and I enjoyed it and I understood it was about Marilyn Monroe and contrasting slash comparing her and her reputation and lived experience with the historico-mythical figure Helen of Troy and I understood who lots of the mythico-historical figures from Homer were and I understood who most of the 1950s/60s celebrities were (i.e. Truman Capote, Arthur Miller etc), I read it in 20 minutes, kinda hiding, and I think it was perhaps the only 20 minutes of 2020 I’ve had where I truly felt like Scott Manley Hadley.

I will reread and comment further.

///

It’s almost a week later and I reread it, yes, I did, and I enjoyed it, but like all Anne Carson I didn’t understand very much more than I did initially, and – unlike most of the writers I encounter who make me feel under-read/ignorant, I (yet again) didn’t feel judged.

Beauty and celebrity, the mythology of where these two things intertwine is an eternal and very human component of art and culture. I didn’t need to understand the significance of every Homeric figure to understand the ways in which mythical, literary, heroes are/were treated similarly to semi-mythical, cultural heroes of the more recent past.

Monroe, like Helen, was an image elevated beyond what could be considered real. And though Monroe – as everyone who’s met a horny hetero male baby boomer can tell you – had the same IQ as Albert Einstein so was technically a “genius” and was therefore complicit to varying degrees in the image that she became, as in she choose to create the image-self, right? like, it wasn’t an accident that she became a Marilyn Monroe, but it wasn’t intentional that she would have to become the Marilyn Monroe 24/7 or whatever, right?

Beauty is a blessing and a curse. The only thing worse than being talked about is not not being talked about, it is being talked about constantly but not in the way you want, not in the way that you’d planned.

Helen is a historical, tragic, figure, as too was Monroe, an individual who has remained of huge cultural import not only because of her performances and her look[s] but because of her life and her mythologies… Arthur Miller remains an acclaimed and canonical writer, but almost always he is first encountered anecdotally as “Arthur Miller, the playwright-ex-husband of Marilyn Monroe”.

There’s lots about Monroe in literature, there’s lots about Miller, too. The glamorous movie star and her nerdy writer husband is a narrative that nerdy writer types continue to obsess over and some of them start to project outwards at devastating personal cost (i.e. the life and presumptive loves of Jonathan Safran Foer…)

As with all Carson, there is wit here but there is also intellect in buckets. There is human emotion and articulated explorations of present realities, historic realities and an evocative exploration of literature and the ways that myth becomes history and history becomes myth.

I have no idea how the text of Norma Jean Baker of Troy would have been performed as a play (as it was) from this text, because it isn’t a script, it’s a poem, no, wait, what’s the word they use for performance art? A score, it’s a score rather than a script.

It’s brilliant, of course. It’s clever (that doesn’t mean sly where I’m from, it means intelligent and well-informed) and moving and funny.

It’s exactly what I wanted from a short book by Anne Carson. Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes.

OK, back to the pandemic. Back to work!

READ ABOUT NORMA JEANE BAKER OF TROY PROPERLY VIA NEW DIRECTIONS

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