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
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
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.
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.
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.