Have you ever read a story and been so enthralled by what it reveals about a famous person that you feel a strong impulse to research it and find out whether or not it’s a true story? But then, you decide that it tells you something more essential about what we all are, and think that of course it’s true, whether or not it actually took place as described in exact detail? That’s how I feel about Joyce Carol Oates’s short story “Three Girls.”
This story is addressed to a “you,” which means of course that it is written in the hard-to-master second person singular, and retells an event which happened to the narrator and the person addressed, two of the “three girls.” It’s all about the romance of books and book lovers, and what it is like to be young and lost in the infinite (or nearly so) world of words and word enthusiasts. The story is set in “Strand Used Books on Broadway and Twelfth one snowy March early evening in 1956,” and the book descriptions are as important as the descriptions of physical space: “No bookstore of merely ‘new’ books with elegant show window displays drew us like the drafty Strand, bins of books untidy and thumbed through as merchants’ sidewalk bins on Fourteenth Street, NEW THIS WEEK, BEST BARGAINS, WORLD CLASSICS, ART BOOKS./50% OFF, REVIEWERS’ COPIES, HIGHEST PRICE $1.98, REMAINDERS./ 25¢–$1.00. Hard-cover/paperback. Spotless/battered. Beautiful books/cheaply printed pulp paper. And at the rear and sides in that vast echoing space massive shelves of books books book rising to a ceiling of hammered tin fifteen feet above! Stacked shelves so high they required ladders to negotiate and a monkey nimbleness (like yours) to climb.”
It is significant that the story takes place where it does, because it doesn’t take place where the narrator and her friend would expect it to, in surroundings such as “Tiffany’s,” or “the Plaza,” or the “Waldorf-Astoria,” or on “the Upper East Side.” Instead, it takes place on their own home turf, where they have often been and browsed through the books before, at a stage in their relationship with each other which causes them all too eagerly to incorporate their enthusiasms with a certain event that takes place there, quite unexpectedly. The event? They sight a third girl poring through the sections of books, a girl older than they by about 9 years, but dressed like a girl still, in contrast to her usual famed appearance: they see Marilyn Monroe, intently perusing books in the modern poetry section, first of all, then picking up Darwin’s Origin of Species, then going through shelves marked “Judaica.” Unseen by her for most of the story, they watch her read, astonished to conclude that she apparently wants to be like them, as they see themselves, two girls with a love for poetry and writing and reading.
They have previously considered Monroe’s world to be beneath them, to be frivolous and airheaded and needful of men–whom they pride themselves on doing without–to make it meaningful. But now they see that Marilyn Monroe has a more serious side, wants to share the world they two share with each other especially, and when she hesitates near the checkout, fearful apparently of being recognized, they take her money and buy her books for her, rather than doing the more pedestrian thing of asking for her autograph. She lends her magic aura to their friendship, however, more, perhaps, to their love relationship. She gives them as a thank-you one of the books she bought, and they treasure it as a talisman both of their adventure in the bookstore and of their connection with each other. The last paragraph of the story reads: “That snowy early evening in March at Strand Used Books. That magical evening of Marilyn Monroe, when I kissed you for the first time.” Thus, Marilyn, far from being a force which causes them to scorn their enthusiasm and surroundings, instead consecrates these things for them because she turns out to have a side which is equal to the more serious topics (than movie fame) which engage them.
Though I hesitate to expose my own dubiousness about whether or not Marilyn Monroe was “bookish,” I should at least reveal that I was curious as to whether or not Joyce Carol Oates meant for her two main characters to have been correct or deluded in their notion that the woman they saw was Monroe. For one thing, she commented on the “blue eyes” of Marilyn: in all the photos I’d seen of her, I’d thought Monroe had chocolate brown eyes, and the movies of hers I’d seen were too long ago for me to be sure. Though the experience of the two girls was still significant regardless of whether or not it was actually Monroe (just as the story was significant whether or not it was autobiographical), I was intrigued by what Oates’s intentions were in this respect. So, I actually looked up a gallery of photos of Marilyn Monroe. A lot of the shots were in black and white, and those which weren’t seemed to suggest that her eyes were dark. In two of the photos taken close up and in color with Monroe’s eyes very wide open, however, the eyes were clearly a deep and pellucid blue! It was just the excessive dark eye makeup of the time which had deceived me. Thus, apparently Oates meant for the experience of the two girls to be a genuine one, in literary terms at least. And also in literary terms (with particular reference now to postmodernism), Monroe’s cameo appearance is meant to signify an interpenetration of the “realism” of films and the eerie hyperreality of seeing a film star in actual life, which is rather like seeing where the “toys” are put away after we are finished “playing” with them.
To the two girls, however, the experience joins them even more strongly to each other, as does the one book Monroe gives them to share (a book of poems by Marianne Moore, another M. M.). The glamor of the film world is therefore bestowed like a halo upon a world which for the main characters already had its crown of light; to find an unexpected “ally” of sorts involved in their dreams and fantasies of literary excellence, however, gives the experience a validity from an unexpected quarter, and somehow these situations always impress us humans the most. I still remember once back in the mid-70’s, when I was briefly in Cannes, and came back with a photo of a startling redhead whose picture had been accidentally taken while I was filming a town square: my family and I argued amongst ourselves for days as to whether or not it was Ann-Margret (the stage name of Ann-Margret Olsson). The square was still beautiful and historic regardless of who the intruding redhead was, but somehow to others looking at the photos with us, the photo became not “And this is the such-and-such Place in Cannes” but “Here’s the square in Cannes where we think Ann-Margret walked in front of the camera.”
Such is fame, and such is the significance of a moment in time in Oates’s story: the fame is there for everyone to see, and gets as near to immortality as humans can perhaps conceive of, but the moment in time in which ordinary people think they brush up against fame in non-typical or unexpected surroundings often becomes the touchstone for a private moment of their own when they felt they were in communication with infinity because of something they were sharing with others who, like them, “just happened to be there.”