The Tattooed Girl

The Tattooed Girl

3.3 9
by Joyce Carol Oates

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Joshua Seigl, a celebrated but reclusive author, is forced for reasons of failing health to surrender his much-prized bachelor's independence. Advertising for an assistant, he unwittingly embarks upon the most dangerous adventure of his privileged life.

Alma Busch, a sensuous, physically attractive young woman with bizarre tattoos covering much of her body,


Joshua Seigl, a celebrated but reclusive author, is forced for reasons of failing health to surrender his much-prized bachelor's independence. Advertising for an assistant, he unwittingly embarks upon the most dangerous adventure of his privileged life.

Alma Busch, a sensuous, physically attractive young woman with bizarre tattoos covering much of her body, stirs in Seigl a complex of emotions: pity? desire? responsibility? guilt? Unaware of her painful past and her troubled personality, Seigl hires her as his assistant. As the novel alternates between Seigl's and Alma's points of view, the naive altruism of the one and the virulent anti-Semitism of the other clash in a tragedy of thwarted erotic desire.

With her masterful balance of dark suspense and surprising tenderness, Joyce Carol Oates probes the contemporary tragedy of ethnic hatred and challenges our accepted limits of desire. The Tattooed Girl may be her most controversial novel.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
… there is in this novel, as in so much of Oates's fiction, a dark and brooding quality, a determined and unflinching stare at the scars we carry on our souls and the desperate means by which we cling to faith and hope and love. — John Gregory Brown
The Los Angeles Times
Oates writes The Tattooed Girl in a variety of styles, most of them ugly. When she renders Joshua's consciousness, her prose is clotted, intellectualized, ungainly; when she renders Alma's, it's slapdash, unpunctuated. This is surely by design. For when she wants the novel to move, it moves — usually when her characters are in the grip of inspiration or dementia; for instance, when Joshua, in temporary remission from his disease, feels a manic grandiosity. — Michael Harris
The New York Times
There is a showy unsqueamishness in the way Oates writes about violence that makes for uneasy reading. And unexpected reading: an investigation into the relationship between a writer and his assistant might seem, after all, an unlikely platform for Gothic displays of malevolence. But in the world of The Tattooed Girl, violence is ubiquitous; it rules. — Sophie Harrison
Publishers Weekly
When a reclusive, 38-year-old writer hires a near-illiterate young woman as an assistant at his suburban home in Carmel Heights, near Rochester, N.Y., he's unaware that a vehement anti-Semitism seethes beneath her tattoo-branded exterior. Renowned for The Shadows-his great early success, a novel based on his grandparents' experiences in Germany during the Holocaust-Joshua Seigl confuses his friends and sparks the anger of his hypomanic sister, Jet, when despite their objections he refuses to fire the young woman. A full portrait of the amiable, disillusioned Seigl emerges as he translates Virgil's The Aeneid, makes excuses for his failing health (he has recently been diagnosed with a debilitating nerve disease) and interacts erratically with his concerned friend, Sondra. Meanwhile, the mentally hollowed-out Tattooed Girl comes to seem a more realistic victim of persecution than any character in Seigl's historical fiction. Her soft, fleshy skin is defaced with ugly tattoos burned beneath her eye and on the backs of her hands by a mysterious group of abusive males. With scarcely a shred of self-esteem, she mumbles "Alma" to those who ask her name, "as if she had no surname. Or her surname wasn't important, as Alma herself wasn't important." She continually tries to impress her abusive, Jew-hating boyfriend, Dmitri, with little treasures stolen from her employer. Yet as she learns more about Seigl and his heritage, she can no longer ignore the dignity and respect with which he treats her. With her usual cadenced grace, Oates (We Were the Mulvaneys; Blonde; etc.) tells a mesmerizing, disturbing tale-though the little that is revealed of the Tattooed Girl's past may leave fans wanting more. Like the readers of Seigl's The Shadows, those who look for more meaning beneath the surface will be "forced to imagine what the writer doesn't reveal." (June 20) Forecast: In May, Oates's acclaimed second novel, A Garden of Earthly Delights (originally published in 1967), will be reissued by the Modern Library. The author's unusual decision to substantially revise and rewrite this work will prompt discussion and may boost general Oates sales. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
From its opening words, this riveting and at times highly disturbing novel will have listeners firmly in its grip. Oates's (Blonde) knack for portraying the poor and uneducated interacting with the wealthy intellectual is in perfect form here. Alma, a girl of indeterminate age with disturbing tattoos all over her face and arms, has gotten used to being a prostitute and slapped around by her lover and has been brought up to hate Jews. Joshua Seigi-wealthy, a brilliant but reclusive novelist, Greek translator, and expert in Holocaust literature-takes her in to "assist" him, for reasons even he himself can't figure out. With these and other characters captured in perfect pitch, Oates's novel builds drama and tension, turning misunderstanding and stupidity into insightful glimpses of lives we can barely fathom. Not a word is wasted. With Kate Fleming's reading, the book builds to almost thriller intensity and might well be appreciated by listeners who would normally shun more literary works and writers. Essential for all collections.-Rochelle Ratner, formerly with "Soho Weekly News," New York Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A hybrid, somewhere between (her pseudonym) Rosamond Smith’s suspense thrillers and the melodramatic clashes of opposites in earlier works like Wonderland (1971) and American Appetites (1989). Oates’s gazillionth novel, if anyone’s still counting, focuses initially on Joshua Seigl, a former novelist and classics scholar approaching 40, living in self-imposed solitude in the upstate New York college town of Carmel Heights. Unable to find a suitable male research assistant, he impulsively hires Alma Busch, the eponymous beauty who also bears a "disfiguring" facial tattoo, as well as a resentful vagrant and criminal past dating back to her upbringing among the semiliterate, bigoted working-class poor of the Akron Valley, where coal mine fires burning ceaselessly underground symbolize Alma’s own buried emotions. A potentially fascinating dynamic unites white-trash Alma with Seigl, absorbed in his translation of the Aeneid and in hypochondriacal obsession with an undiagnosed "nervous disorder." Alas, Oates also introduces Alma’s brutal lover and pimp, café waiter and college dropout Dmitri Meatte, a scheming underachiever who encourages Alma to ingratiate herself with "the Jew" and bleed him of his wealth. Dmitri is a cartoon, but less unbelievable than Seigl’s older sister, named (with equal improbability) Jet. This "homegrown Cassandra" obtrudes herself into Joshua’s life (irrationality incarnate, threatening his scholarly monkishness), appears to have been defused, then rises again, to precipitate the lurid, explosive finale. Oates is onto something with the bruised, malleable figure of Alma (whose emotional vacillations are very real indeed), and Joshua Seigl’s own fluctuations betweenscholarly integrity and a consuming temperamental weakness make him one of Oates’s most interesting recent characters. But The Tattooed Girl is flawed by the insistent presences of Jet and Dmitri, who have nothing like its principals’ realness. Better-than-average Oates, all the same.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Eco Paperback Edition
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Tattooed Girl

A Novel
By Joyce Carol Oates

HarperCollins Publishers

Copyright © 2003 Joyce Carol Oates
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060531061

Chapter One

He had known it must happen soon. And yet he wasn't prepared for it happening so soon.

"I can't do it any longer. No more." He meant, but could not bring himself to acknowledge, I can't live alone any longer.

Chapter Two

Easy is the way down into the Underworld: by night and by day dark Hades' door stands open ... He smiled at these lines of Virgil floating into consciousness like froth on a stream. He told himself he wasn't frightened: his soul was tough as the leather of his oldest boots.

He would hire someone to live with him. And really he did need an assistant for his translation project.

He was a discreet man, a private man. To friends who'd known him for more than twenty years, and even to most of his relatives, an enigmatic man.

And so his initial inquiries were discreet, made among acquaintances in the city rather than friends.

"I need an assistant ..."

He disliked the sound of this. Need?

"I'd like to hire an assistant."

Or, "I'm thinking of hiring an assistant."

Better to make it more specific, defined.

"I'm thinking of hiring a research assistant for a few months beginning in November."

Adding, "Preferably a young man."

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.

Seigl was sexually susceptible: less so emotionally susceptible. He'd had a number of love affairs since late adolescence but had never wanted to marry nor had he been weakened, or flattered, by another's wish that he marry. "Intimacy, on a daily basis. Hourly! How is it accomplished?" He laughed, but it was a serious question. How is intimacy accomplished? Even while deeply involved with a woman with whom he'd shared a residence in Rochester, Seigl had kept his house in the hilly suburb of Carmel Heights and worked there much of the time.

The love affair had ended abruptly several years ago. Seigl had never understood why, exactly. "But if you love me? Why would you shut a door against me?" he'd asked in all sincerity. For finally a door had been shut against him, disturbing as a riddle in a code Seigl couldn't crack.

The tyranny of convention. Marriage, "family." Seigl hated it.

So, a female assistant was not a good idea. And there were practical reasons for preferring a young man to live with Seigl through the winter months in this glacier-gouged upstate New York terrain where the weather could be treacherous.

And so he began to make inquiries. Hesitantly at first, even shyly. Seigl was a large bewhiskered gregarious-seeming man who in fact prized his independence, even his aloneness. Joshua Seigl ? Hiring an assistant? To live in his house ...? Word spread quickly in Carmel Heights, he knew. He hated to imagine himself talked-of, even without malice. Always he'd been self-sustaining, self-sufficient. As a writer he'd never applied for a grant. He had never accepted a permanent teaching position at a university because he'd felt, early on, the powerful attraction of teaching, as an emotional substitute for writing. (The curious mesmerizing intensity of teaching! A brightly lighted space to shield us from the darkness surrounding.) Seigl wasn't a vain man and yet: he'd long taken pride in resisting the efforts of well-intentioned others to make him less alone.

"Join you? Why?"

A question he'd kept to himself.

Yet now he was weakening, now a new alarming phase of his life had begun. Yes, he would hire an assistant: ideally, a graduate student in classics. Since Seigl's project was Virgil, someone who knew Latin. The assistant might also help with household accounts, pay bills. Do secretarial work, filing, computer processing. (The computer screen had begun to dazzle Seigl's eyes. The luminous afterimage quivered in his brain through nights of disturbed sleep.) If things worked out, the assistant might live in guest quarters on the ground floor of Seigl's house ...

Seigl made discreet inquiries among his wide, casual acquaintance in the area: administrators and faculty at the University of Rochester, at the Jesuit-run College of Mount Carmel, at the Eastminister Music Conservatory where, since his father's death, he'd taken Karl Seigl's place as a trustee. He didn't wish to place a formal notice in any publication that would include his unlisted phone number or e-mail address, and he was even more reluctant to make inquiries through friends.

His parents had died several years ago. This house wasn't theirs, but Seigl's maternal grandfather's, which he'd inherited by default. Seigl and his older sister Jet were trust-fund beneficiaries of a family estate. The subject of finances embarrassed Seigl, and made him restless. His Marxist sympathies aroused him to a vague self-disapproval and yet: receiving an income freed him from any obsession with money-making. There was a purely romantic, unworldly quality to Seigl, his discomfort at being paid for his writing, for any expression of his "spirit." For wasn't writing a spiritual endeavor, in essence? It was conceived in the privacy of a man's heart, and therefore had to be pure, uncontaminated by greed.

Maybe, he'd lived too long alone.

He dreaded his sister Jet hearing of his plan to hire an assistant, knowing how possessive she was of him, her younger brother whom she'd ignored while they were growing up. Joshua! Don't let a stranger into your life, you know I am here for you.

Jet's language, which grated against Seigl's ear, was taken from pop-culture almost exclusively. Her values, her relentless "enthusiasm." Once Joshua Seigl had become well-known in intellectual circles, Jet had turned her basilisk-eyes upon him, greedy and yearning.

Jet was self-named: "Jet Steadman-Seigl." In fact, she'd been baptized in their mother's Presbyterian church as "Mary Beth Seigl." But this bland name lacked the manic glamor of "Jet Steadman-Seigl" and had to be cast off. (Steadman was their mother's surname, one that signaled inherited money and social position in the Rochester area since the 1880s.)

Their parents' marriage, intensely romantic at the start, had been what is quaintly called "mixed." That is, Protestant, Jew. Seigl's full name was Joshua Moses Seigl. There was a name with character! He'd been named for his father's father who had been a rich importer of leather goods in Munich, Germany, in the 1920s and 1930s; not many miles from the small rural town with the name, at that time innocuous, Dachau.

Excerpted from The Tattooed Girl by Joyce Carol Oates Copyright © 2003 by Joyce Carol Oates
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Joyce Carol Oates is a recipient of the National Medal of Humanities, the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Book Award, and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978.

Brief Biography

Princeton, New Jersey
Date of Birth:
June 16, 1938
Place of Birth:
Lockport, New York
B.A., Syracuse University, 1960; M.A., University of Wisconsin, 1961

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Tattooed Girl 3.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Loathesone characters that aren't even deep enough to dislike, a gloss of anti-semitism that is nowhere near the reality of vicious hate pervasive in the world today, and a final scene that should have taken place 200 pages earlier to spare all of us. It is almost an explanation of how fiction can effect change, almost a psychological thriller, almost a portrait of the clash of class and social structure. Every character is a victim, every character eventually falls. And I didn't care one bit.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Brace yourself for a wake-up call. Anti-Semitism is alive in this so-called time of enlightenment, and it is continuing to breed its own distinctive form of hate. Oates displays this horrible face of humanity in a hold-nothing-back way. Shocking, alarming, and, at times, downright repugnant, it still remains a must-read for anyone interested in the human condition. Oates is known for always pushing the envelope. She does not disappoint with The Tattooed Girl.
Camboron More than 1 year ago
On page 5, I was already shaking my head at how good this book was. Oates, while sometimes not reaching the same almost-feverish emotional reactions I get from reading her greatest books, never disappoints. And this is one of the wild and disturbed ones. Joshua, who is funny, fussy, nitpicky, another great example of a teacher/writer that seems to be prevalent in her books, decides, in the uncertainty of his changing health, to hire an assistant. Oates expertly displays how one can form opinions based on simply what one is told by someone they love and trust. Also, she is a master at perception. Alma and Joshua's opinions of each other are so different, and yet, when you see the other from the other's eyes, you believe and see how each comes to their own conclusion. If you want to pin down the "villain" of the piece, it is difficult, for everyone in the book has their redeeming and unpleasant qualities. And yet, with the amount of ignorance and hate, it is all balanced by a nuanced portrayal of the characters, with subtext, and back story supplying the logic and organic thoughts of each. However, the ultimate "villain" can never be who you will expect, when Oates writes a book, and with a book with something so caustic and hateful at the core, only someone as good as Oates can turn the tables so convincingly and emotionally, getting you instantly to change sides and realign who you root for. This book made me confront my own experiences with ignorance, whether my own, or ignorance directed at me. And in the case of Alma, or the girl I met at a greyhound station who harmlessly commented that she'd known she'd met her first Jewish man by the "Channukah(sic) on his head"; as violent or "innocuous" as ignorance can be, it has its many shades, and can still contribute to things like the events in this book. This is great, typical Oates.
sandiek More than 1 year ago
Joshua Siegl is a respected novelist and scholar. He made his reputation early with the publication of an acclaimed novel that wrote about the Holocaust, and which was based on his grandparents' experience with the death camps. Although Joshua is young, still in his 30's, he has found himself becoming more and more of a recluse. Fiercely independent, he has few outside relationships and lives alone. Alma Busch is quite different. A poorly educated woman from a poor family, Alma has made her way through life, often by depending on men. These men, who she always believes love her, end up treating her badly. She has been prostituted by them and forced to write bad checks or steal. In a stunning episode, she was imprisoned in a motel room by a gang of men, raped and then tattooed by them on her face, back and hands. She drifts from man to man and job to job, never finding human validation. Everything changes for both of these people when Joshua is diagnosed with a progressive nerve disease. He at first refuses to admit this is happening, but as the weeks go by and he starts to lose functioning of his body, he realises he will need to have some help. Still shunning from public disclosure of his condition, he meets Alma in a restaurant and impulsively offers her a job as a live-in assistant. Thus begins their strange relationship. Joshua sees Alma as a project of sorts, as he wants to help her gain Independence and education. He begins to depend more and more on her help. She helps him get around, organizes his scholarly papers, and takes over the organization of the house. Alma sees Joshua as different things. She doesn't understand his world, and is filled with contempt that he spends so much money on things that she could do for him. Slowly, she takes over these things like cleaning his clothes, cleaning the house, etc. She loves him at times, and is filled with hate for him at others. Unused to decent treatment from men, she has been conditioned to see this kind of treatment as weakness. Over time they develop an uneasy relationship that has each dependant on the other for their lives going forward. Joyce Carol Oates, who is a prolific writer, has created a chilling portrait in this book. It is unclear throughout where the reader's sympathies should lie, with Joshua or Alma. Is he saving her or condescending to her? Is she helping him, or making him dependant on him for a unsavory reason? The reader will be compelled to read to the end to discover what happens in this relationship, and who will emerge as the winner in the battle of wills. This book is recommended for all readers.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I have loved and hated JCO books. This falls in the second category. I had to force myself to keep reading, ready to give up several times in the first 100+ pages and upon finishing realized I should have given up the fight to get through this book. I would recommend this if you have never been aware of anti-semitism but those having lived with our eyes open during our lifetime do not need this book to do that.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was amazing. I have always adored JCO's books, but, this one, WOW, it gave me goosebumps. What a gifted storyteller, to be able to take the reader along the chaos of human life, to make you understand these people, their emotions and LOVE cry for them. This will always remain my favorite book of all time. It has the rare beauty that few books possess. The characters are flawless, the story is too. JCO has done it will truley love this book. Read it!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Every time I think the prodigous Ms. Oates has produced her ultimate masterpiece, she does it again. Tatooed Girl is riveting, disquieting, and numbing. In short, everything serious fiction should be.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is my 2nd book by Oates...I was again disappointed. Maybe the problem is I have a hard time getting interested in the story. The inside flap of this book really excited me. I started reading and then had to convince myself to keep going. I didn't feel there was anything to look forward to. Was the 'tatooed girl' going to fall in love, get rid of her so called boyfriend, what? I kept waiting. Finally something did happen in the the last few pages. I think this could of been shorter...get to the point already. I read all sorts of books and try and review them on bn. Keep in mind this is only my opinion and maybe this author is just not for me. I will probably keep trying her least one more before I give up. Just don't expect anything spectacular.