The Tattooed Girl

by Joyce Carol Oates
ISBN: 0060531061

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A Review of: The Tattooed Girl
by Richard Harvor

Like a potty-mouthed child, Joyce Carol Oates craves attention. Cranking out the obscenities with the grueling regularity of McDonald's hamburgers, she's a logorrheic wonder (30 novels under her own name, 8 under the pseudonym Rosamind Smith; 19 short story collections; 8 volumes of poetry; 8 books of essays; 7 plays; 4 novellas; one book for children and one for young adults). With the bloodhound nose of a tabloid hack, she seizes-rabidly, rapaciously, and with a Rotweiler's tenacity-onto the sensationalistic, glazes, gussies it up with a fancy-pants scrim of "literary" respectability and churns out yet another butter-slick slab of gassy grabby opportunism. Pushing buttons with pert aplomb, her books bulge with perky sleaze, with etiolated crassness, enervated vulgarity. They teem with a dreary, pummeling misogyny: there's a weirdly prurient masochism to Oates's writing masquerading as a critique of gender relations. No deviance is too tired to flog, no sadistic tic too trivial to histrionically inflate to Satanic proportions.
Case in point: The Tattooed Girl. Story is simple enoughJoshua Seigl is a critically celebrated, financially entitled but chary author. For reasons of an ambiguous ailment he's obliged to give up his hermetic loner's existence and take on an assistant.
Enter Alma Busch: girl of title. Amateurishly, grotesquely tattooed by unnamed malevolent third parties in her ferociously toxic Pennsylvania mining hometown (a town both environmentally toxic-in the form of perpetual underground fires-and fascistically, racially toxic in the form of rampant anti-Semitism, and rampant anti-everything-else-but-us-ism). Alma is a mishmash: porky but pretty, skanky but sexy, passive but cunning, fatly sly, poisonously innocent. She falls prey to the reptilian charms of the groaningly-named Dmitri Meatte ("Dmitri was one to fasten onto theories. Could be a strength, could be a weakness. Obviously, his sign was Capricorn."), a sociopathic, closeted neo-Nazi waiter at the caf Seigl frequents for "chess nights". Alma then inveigles herself-in a flabby gambit to further endear herself to her hot/cold (like meat?) lover-into the scattered affections of her employer, attempts to insert herself in the role of a quasi-paramour. Seigl, writer of a widely-hailed Holocaust novel he feels shabbily phony about, assailed by self-doubt and loathing, responds with a sublimated, keening yearn to Alma's oblique, emotionally opaque advances, smashing open a thriving hornet's nest of interlocked, interlaced patterns of want, recrimination, of hatred, guilt and rancor.
There's a shifty, slippery, slipshod absence of coherence to the cast's respective characters: for example, the rickety disjuncture between S's supposed age with his fussily professorial, anachronistic diction, which seems better suited to a Bellowesque old-timer than mutedly groovy intellectual urbanite. Here he is on page 5:

Women, even quite young women, had a disconcerting habit of falling in love with him. Or imagining love. He would not have minded so much if he himself were not susceptible to sexual longings as some individuals are susceptible to pollen even as others are immune.

And on page 75 (following his initial encounter with Alma):

He moved on. He didn't want to make the girl more self- conscious than she already was. And he was hardly a man to speak to strange women in public places; he wasn't a man who took much notice of other people, even sexually attractive females.

The character of Seigl is a trite amalgam, an embarrassing mish-mash of stereotypes: physically large and virile yet quaintly erudite; bearish but nimble; loquacious yet wittily wary; expansively reticent. And so on.
The character of Alma is likewise a trite amalgam: her knee-jerk racism ultimately a consequence of her spiritually bereft, hardscrabble background (racism as manifestation of reversed self-loathing). There's a dull trounce to her vituperative anti-Semitic interior monologues, woefully reminiscent of Oates's abortive attempt to penetrate the psyche of a serial killer in the abysmal Zombie. There's also the labored metaphor of the Hellishness of her origins: the parallel, reductively simplistic symbolism of her tattoos with those of Holocaust victims; her own attendant, abundant victimization. She's an emotionally starved, intellectually pinched tabula rasa.
The Tattooed Girl teems with red herrings-the role-reversals, the gnarled, snarled twists and turns, the risible deus ex machina of the denouement-all of which seem stalely tacked-on to the narrative's tacky hoarding, its plodding prod. It comes across, sadly, as a computer-generated morality play. The book's core concept-fumbled by Oates-is the degree to which we consistently, pathetically, and, at times, mortally misinterpret the profound candour, the hard-knuckled truth of our rampant emotional energy, its ferociously pitched, erratic tenor.
The Holocaust-so monolithically, dizzyingly vile-haunts us like ghosts haunt a house. I remember a now-deceased family friend-a death-camp-survivor-pointing out something while wearing a short-sleeved shirt: the shock of the tattooed numbers was raw as a slap. The crux, the crushing pivot, of the narrative of The Tattooed Girl is not only an authorial attempt to address the Holocaust as an irrefutable historical mass, but also to confront its absolute moral wrongness. Ultimately, Oates fails due to the titanic stringency of her subject, its annihilative intimacy.

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