Illustration By Shino Arihara

After four decades of publishing somewhere in the neighborhood of 85 novels, novellas, essays, short-story collections, children’s and young-adult books, poetry volumes and plays, it seems Joyce Carol Oates still has a surprise or two up her ink-stained sleeve. Her most recent novel, The Tattooed Girl, is one of her strangest yet. And Alma Busch — part-time prostitute, Jew hater, thief, drug abuser — ranks among the author’s strongest creations.

It’s not the story, really, that makes this new work so odd. In fact, the storyline of The Tattooed Girl, at least by Oates’ gothic standards, is relatively tame. After being diagnosed with a vague “nerve disease” and taking a bad fall while jogging, 38-year-old Joshua Seigl, a well-regarded writer living in shabbily comfortable seclusion in the upstate New York town of Carmel Heights, crosses paths with a mysterious young woman. Covered with crude, spidery tattoos, Alma Busch is an immediately recognizable Oatesian creature: possessed of innate intelligence, negligible schooling and zero culture, abused all her life, she seethes with an inchoate rage equaled only by her passivity and cunning.

In Alma’s case, her rage is informed by a bone-deep anti-Semitism that’s as unreflectively banal as it is toxic. The product of a Pennsylvania mining town destroyed, the nomadic Alma believes, by the greed and indifference of shadowy, near-mythic “banker Jews,” she has landed in Carmel Heights for the same reason that people like Alma arrive anywhere: There’s everywhere — and nowhere — else to go. Within hours of setting foot in town, this drug-addled casualty of bad fate and worse choices immediately falls in with a cartoonishly sinister waiter/pimp, Dmitri Meatte, and eventually catches Joshua Seigl’s eye. During an awkward, brief encounter in a local bookstore, where the barely articulate Alma has improbably landed a job, Seigl — disturbed by his own suddenly declining health and drawn to something unnamable in the younger woman — impulsively hires her to act as his assistant.

From there, well, things don’t go swimmingly for either of them. In other words, The Tattooed Girl is a classic Oates study of busted psyches, marginal (but thoroughly compelling) outcasts, and the filmy veneer that separates an ostensibly civil society from the law of the jungle. What’s truly weird about the book, then, is not its plot, but the novel’s profoundly uneven narrative.

Gradually, inexorably, we’re drawn into the interior world of a young woman so relentlessly victimized throughout her life that when she reacts with alarm and ashamed confusion to Seigl’s unfailing gentleness the reader almost flinches in empathy. Alma is never likable; instead she emerges as something more than that: a stranger to herself, but nonetheless wholly human and familiar to us.

“I am an American and a child of Hell,” she divulges at one point, in one of the many mesmerizing interior dialogues among her split selves. “Ask me if I am happy, I am.” Appearing midway through the book, when Oates has already so fully cataloged Alma’s misery, that desperate, rushed, unconvincing “I am” is heartbreaking in its defiance and its futility.

But as revealing a portrait as Oates paints of Alma, her depiction of Seigl’s preposterously shrill sister, Jet, is almost laughable. Jet is a femme fatale without the charm, allegedly brilliant but incapable of speaking (or rather, shouting) in anything but woeful clichés, and so her appearances in the book (and there are many) are almost unreadable. If, with Jet, Oates set out to create The Most Obnoxious Fictional Character of 2003, she succeeded. If, on the other hand, she wanted to comment acidly on contemporary narcissism, or explain through Jet the insecurities and sudden rages that so often assail her far more believable brother, she failed, and in that failure weakened her novel.

The confused and uncomfortable relationship between Seigl and Alma comprises the book’s emotional core, and its patient delineation is evidence, as if anyone still needed it, that Oates remains one of the most insightful psychological tale-spinners we have, our poet laureate of unease. But in the end the novel works not because it is flawless, but because its flaws fade in light of the author’s intelligence and anger. The world that The Tattooed Girl depicts is our own, whether we like it or not; and Oates, in this refined, exasperating book, relentlessly rubs our noses in it.


THE TATTOOED GIRL | By JOYCE CAROL OATES | Ecco Press 307 pages | $26 hardcover

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