Celebrity and voyeurism go hand in hand. Americans treat famous actors and artists like people they know intimately, expecting information about their hobbies, families, and sex lives. Most interest in public figures’ lives crosses the boundaries of decency, but modern culture makes allowances for nosiness, especially when some of the stars are playing up their own trials and trysts to increase their fame. At this point, when does curiosity about an idol become unseemly?
J.I. Baker’s debut novel, The Empty Glass, is a perfect example of nosiness gone too far. It follows Ben Fitzgerald, an alcoholic underling in the Los Angeles Coroner’s Office, as he uncovers discrepancies surrounding the mysterious death of the most gossiped-about movie star of all time, Marilyn Monroe. After finding Monroe’s secret diary, Fitzgerald suspects foul play. As he attempts to make sense of her drug-addled scrawl, both the federal government and the Mafia take an interest in the information he has, which puts his family in jeopardy.
The Empty Glass reproduces parts of that diary, giving a fictional first-hand account of Monroe’s nadir of drug abuse and depression, and they provide clues to a conspiracy that led to her death. Unfortunately, The Empty Glass’ plot seems like a mere excuse for these diary snippets, making it less a mystery novel than a fictionalized tell-all from a long-dead movie star.
Monroe’s faux-diary sounds like it’s coming from a Monroe character, rather than from a self-destructing, drug-addicted woman near suicide. But that’s less of a problem than the novel’s use of her torrid last days as titillation. Instead of trying to understand Monroe psychologically, Baker spends time describing, her unsatisfying sex with Robert Kennedy. Suggesting her affair with the attorney general led to her death is an interesting hook, but rather than expanding on that theory, Baker lets the book run forward without stopping to fill in the details. Monroe and Kennedy are cardboard stand-ups in The Empty Glass—recognizable, but without a sense of character behind them. Ben suffers from a similar lack of characterization, but while that makes the book difficult to enjoy, it’s ultimately more forgivable: Ben’s sketchy quality is a mark of poor craftsmanship, but Baker isn’t insulting anybody’s memory by failing to provide motivations for his actions.
Worse by far is Baker’s treatment of real people. Kennedy is simply a villain, sexually impotent and willing to pull strings to silence Monroe when she starts to act out, but with no defined reasons for acting so atrociously. Similarly, readers are never privy to why Monroe is downing enormous amounts of sleeping pills and alcohol. Possibly Baker assumes there’s no reason to provide the basic details of Monroe’s emotional life, since it’s all been written about before. But in that case, why does The Empty Glass exist? Baker seems to be betting that Americans’ fascination with Monroe will mask how little work he does in capturing her as a human being. Instead of exploring who she was, he relies on the tawdry details of her last days, expanded by the sexual escapades he invents for her. It’s a shame, and it insults readers as much as it insults Monroe’s memory, since it assumes everyone is more interested in 50-year-old gossip than in a well-told story.