‘Tattooed Girl’ Mines a Root of Prejudice

Alma Busch fled the dirty poverty of Akron Valley, a poor mining town in Pennsylvania, about which she tells us, "There’d been no Jews, not a one."

Alma continues in an interior monologue: "No Jew would live in such a place … if you traced it back far enough, not whose names were on the mines, but who actually owned the mines, these were banks, the international conspiracy of Jew-banks, you’d discover it’s Jews. How do you know, well you know. She was 27 years old and no child. Things you know like you know the Earth is round, the sun is in the sky."

Alma’s body is variously and sloppily tattooed. This unclear legacy was scrawled over her during a drugged stupor by men casually known and now unremembered.

The celebrated but reclusive writer at the center of this novel, Joshua Seigl, first glimpses Alma seated in a bar in the rarified air of Carmel Heights, near Rochester, N.Y., where he exists. He immediately mistakes the tattoo beneath her eye for a birthmark.

Neither of these characters, driving at breakneck speed toward each other, are seeing anything too clearly. So a crash is expected. But with the prolific Joyce Carol Oates’ deft and dark hands on both wheels, the carnage is far worse than is easily imagined.

At 39, shaken by a sudden and not completely diagnosed muscular disease, Seigl advertises for an assistant. Enter the uneducated Alma, whom Seigl hires.

Seigl is a tedious, condescending, erudite bore, and Oates paints him brilliantly as such: "Seigl thought of himself as a connoisseur of female beauty, but at a remove. Always, with Seigl, there was this remove. Like a pane of glass between himself and the other. He admired the females of Botticelli, Titian, Ingres, Vermeer, Manet, Degas…. Less so the females of 20th-century art, where, amid the fracturing of planes and surfaces, you could actually find a female shape. Living women Seigl tended to disregard as objects of contemplation. They were too human and immediate, too much like himself."

Though I found these characters entirely unappealing, I could not put the book down, or more accurately, whenever I put it down, I quickly reached for it.

Alma grows under Seigl’s lust-driven but distant tutelage, but he never breaks through the pane to physically touch her, though she does over time, to her amazement, come to love him.

Seigl rigorously and often tries to reason with Alma: "Do you personally believe, Alma, that Jews are somehow different from you and your family? Jews are — what? Exotic? Treacherous? Dangerous? Not to be trusted. Likely to swindle you? A separate and distinct race of human being?" Seigl smiled. He might have been speaking to a small, recalcitrant child. "Surely you aren’t one of those who think that the Jews have horns, are you"?

Alma frowned. What kind of horns?

"Horns like this." Seigl made horns with his fingers, protruding from his forehead. The gesture was meant to make Alma smile, and so Alma did.

With a clumsy sort of levity Alma said, hugging her rib cage, "Well, not you." She laughed, more shrilly than she wished. "I guess."

Alma comes to cherish Seigl in the way certain Nazis maintained a Jewish friend, as somehow different, i.e. really not a Jew. Her prejudices remain unsoftened, which may be why Oates figuratively speeds her off a cliff as punishment.

Usually when I’m drawn to books populated with unpleasant characters, it’s because I see my own flaws in theirs. It’s why the TV show "Seinfeld" plucked a phenomenal chord: we all stumble around in such daily dilemmas and often act ridiculously.

The dysfunctional family in Jonathan Franzen’s critically acclaimed and widely read novel, "The Corrections," was an all-too-clear mirror of the American family, equally dysfunctional in the seats of power and in the seats facing Jerry Springer and Montel Williams. It is harder to see oneself in Oates’ characters than in Franzen’s, which is why I suspect that the readership of the "Tattooed Girl" will be proportionally smaller.

Oates has interestingly given us a novel of the blind prejudice of the unexplored — how we often project out hate onto the entirely unknown. She is rightly showing us that much of prejudice is mined from such ignorance; so has gone out of her way to birth her Jew-hater in a corner of the country without Jews.

It is wonderful to have an American literary writer tackle the roots of prejudice in this manner, and though depressing, this is a wonderfully wrought novel.