||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
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,
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.