Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Tattooed Girl by Joyce Carol Oates

"Alma? I wonder if you could help me..."

Yes, Mr. Siegl.

"Some pages seem to be lost. This writing I've been doing in the dining room. I've looked everywhere, I can't understand how these pages could be lost..."

Desperate he was sounding. Pathetic. Why didn't he summon the Blumenthal woman, needing help?

Alma murmured Yes, she would look.

In her heart laughing at the grown man so stricken by the loss of his precious
pages! Like he'd shit his pants when he couldn't find them. Graven images. Those that boast themselves of idols.

It was the Tattooed Girl who had stolen away the pages. Torn them into shreds. Poetry some of it was. And all of it bullshit. Who gave a fuck for what the Jew was scribbling hour after hour, sweating like a pig in a fever? Printed pages in books, who gives a damn for them? If the books added up to anything there would not be so many of them but only a few. The Tattooed Girl had come to think that since becoming Joshua Siegl's assistant that those who practiced such bullshit knew what its true meaning was. Yet the hypocrites prevailed.

Joyce Carol Oates wrote one of my absolute favorite stories of all time, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" but I had never had the occasion to read one of her novels. I ignored the advice of others (I've heard Rape: A Love Story is good but I find it difficult to pick up because of its melodramatic, Lifetime-y premise) and bought this one, because the blurb--Jewish author hires a pretty young assistant, not knowing that she is a virulent anti-Semite--sounded interesting.

It isn't. Or perhaps I'm being too harsh--the problem isn't that it's uninteresting, but rather that it is deeply unappealing. The two main characters are difficult to follow for vastly different reasons: The protagonist, Joshua Siegl, is a writer in his thirties who has recently been diagnosed with a severe neurological disease, and has decided to hire an assistant. He is melancholy, self-loathing, and prone to pretension; with his disease and his glum indolence it is jarring to be reminded that not only is Siegl young, he is widely thought to be handsome. He also enjoys some sort of local celebrity in Rochester, where the novel is set, and is frequently recognized at his favorite restaurant--a fact that recalls to me the way that people used to recognize Kelsey Grammar on Frasier because he was that guy from the radio show. Oates is an author; shouldn't she know that minor writers don't get recognized in restaurants?

In any case, Siegl lacks anything that might approximate a likable characteristic, but worse is the girl he eventually hires to be his assistant, Alma. He passes over many well-educated male candidates because none seems perfect enough, but he is taken by Alma for some reason, and seeing her working at a local bookstore hires her on the spot.

It may be because she is beautiful, but though many men lust after Alma, Oates' physical descriptions of her tend to be vaguely nauseating, her "big beautiful white breasts like bags of warm milk," her "white mollusc-body heaving and bucking." And it isn't because of her intelligence, either, because Oates takes pains to point out that Alma is as dumb as aforementioned mollusc:

Though words sometimes puzzled Alma, she never looked up any word in any dictionary; a word was like a pebble to be turned briefly in the hand, and tossed away, with no expectation that it would be encountered again.

What Siegl does not realize is that Alma comes to him from the care of a waiter named Dmitri Meatte, a crude exploitation artist who pimps Alma and feeds her anti-Semitic nonsense. This anti-Semitism reacts badly with the suspicion that Alma already has of the bankers and finance-men who drove her western Pennsylvania hometown to ruin, and expands with resentment toward the inordinately wealthy Siegl. After a while, she begins to sabotage Siegl in his home, from stealing petty items to--wait for it--contaminating his food with menstrual blood.

This is as inexplicable as it is revolting. What Oates offers as simple explanations for their hatred--Dmitri is sadistic; Alma is a moron--appear bluntly unrealistic. If Alma is made to hate Jews by Dmitri, where does his bigotry originate? Why, in modern America, where race and class conflict are ripe for literary depiction, does Oates choose to chronicle a hatred that rarely seems manifest anymore, at least not in the particularly vicious manner of Dmitri and Alma? The book abounds in lazy parallels to the Holocaust, and Siegl recounts a scene from a book by Primo Levi in which a concentration camp prisoner asks a guard, "warum?"--Why? The guard replies, "Hier ist kein warum"--Here is no why. There is no reason, no because. This is reflected in the tattoos that Alma bears, violet scribbles without purpose or form that seem to have been inflicted upon her unwilling.

Fair enough. Perhaps Oates is telling us that that hatred needs no reasoning, that it merely is. Perhaps Dmitri hates Jews simply because he does. That doesn't stop the book from being deeply unsatisfying or bizarrely unnecessary.

Nor does it make Alma's change of heart any less nonsensical. She begins to have sympathy for the Jews and for Siegl in particular after reading a section about the Holocaust from his only novel, only to become angered when he tells her that the novel is fiction--a concept she does not understand and equates with lies.

Which begs the question, how stupid are we supposed to believe this girl is? Oates not only seems wholly unsympathetic to her characters here, but is making a tactical mistake. That idiots can hold idiotic ideas needs not be explained to us; what we must grapple with when we think of history is why the brilliant and the gifted turn to violent ideologies. The novel, like Alma herself, is bitter, dull, and off-putting, and by the time her heart softens the damage has been done.


Anonymous said...

this sounds really awful.

Christopher said...

That's pretty bold coming from the author of Go Ask Alice. Zing!

Charles said...

Sometimes authors use a novel or screenplay to support political or social beliefs; or to cry out for morality and ethical principles. This is no more clearly evident than with Holocaust books and films. Whenever we stand up to those who deny or minimize the Holocaust, or to those who support genocide we send a critical message to the world.

We know from captured German war records that millions of innocent Jews were systematically exterminated by Nazi Germany - most in gas chambers. Despite this knowledge, Holocaust deniers ply their mendacious poison everywhere, especially with young people on the Internet. Holocaust books and films help to tell the true story of the Shoah, combating anti-Semitic historical revision. And, they protect vulnerable future generations from making the same mistakes.

I wrote Jacob's Courage to promote Holocaust education. This coming of age love story presents accurate scenes and situations of Jews in ghettos and concentration camps, with particular attention to Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. It examines a constellation of emotions during a time of incomprehensible brutality. A world that continues to allow genocide requires such ethical reminders and remediation.

Many authors feel compelled to use their talent to promote moral causes. Holocaust books and movies carry that message globally, in an age when the world needs to learn that genocide is unacceptable. Such authors attempt to show the world that religious, racial, ethnic and gender persecution is wrong; and that tolerance is our progeny's only hope.

Viewing the Holocaust through the eyes of young lovers represents a unique and emotionally penetrating analysis of Jewish life during the Shoah. Called, "Gut wrenching and heart rending" Jacob's Courage allows the reader to comprehend the terror experienced by Holocaust victims on a personal level. Yet, it also reveals the triumphant spirit of humankind and demonstrates how ordinary people can perform extraordinary acts of courage when the lives of loved ones are in danger.

Charles Weinblatt
Author, "Jacob's Courage"

Nihil Novum said...

Charles, send us a review copy and we'll check it out. have you read the Night trilogy by Elie Wiesel?