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?"
I don't imagine that The Tattooed Girl (2003) will be the last Joyce Carol Oates novel that I read - any writer as lauded as she is surely deserves more than one chance - but it certainly didn't turn out to be a great place to start. There are some excellent passages in this potboiler about an author, his domestic help, and her lover, but ultimately I never really felt like it rose above the exaggerated flaws of its central trio - pedantic, petty, and almost childishly lurid, respectively - to become something larger and more subtle. (I note that Vicky's first outing with Oates, way back in the infancy of this blog, didn't go terribly well either. Can anyone make a recommendation?)
The first of our trio - of whom we're told that he "wasn't a vain man"; I refer my readers to the excerpt at the head of this post and ask, oh really? - is one Joshua Seigl, a half-Jewish author primarily famous for writing a Holocaust novel. He is a fussy, prissy mass of neuroses, "a large bewhiskered gregarious-seeming man who in fact prized his independence, even his aloneness", and much of those sections of the novel that are told from his point-of-view consist of him overthinking things to the point of paralysis, or remembering how he has overthought things in the past. What do his fellow residents of the exclusive Carmel Heights district think of him? Is his spare room clean enough? Should he take a teaching post at a university to support himself? The answer to that one, inevitably, was no; he fears "the powerful attraction of teaching, as an emotional substitute for writing".
I imagine it was Oates' intent to present Joshua as his own worst enemy - perhaps if he stopped procrastinating and gave up some of that much-prized solitude, he might become a bit more interesting, if only because he'd have to vary his topics of conversation a little after a while - but he makes for pretty tedious and rather caricatured company. He is "an avalanche about to slide", who walks with a cane, clings to railings as he descends staircases for fear of falling, and decides to employ an assistant - not as his secretary, you understand, more as his executor. He romanticises himself and his privileged existence with every faltering, emotionally-palsied step he takes:
The subject of finances embarrassed Seigl, and made him restless. His Marxist sympathies arouse him to a 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.
He is also, we discover a little way into the novel, all of 38 years old.
Despite having all the lust for life and self-possessed spark of a particularly timid septugenarian, however, Joshua still appreciates the visual stimulus that is Alma Busch, the young woman upon whom he impulsively bestows the office of his assistant. (The phrasing is deliberate; 'bestowing' is more or less exactly how Joshua conceives of his relationship to her, and he is almost entirely oblivious to the damaging power imbalance this creates.) It's not quite that the sight of her enables him to cast off the shackles of his self-imposed aura of premature age - he mentally puts her in the box he marks "sexually attractive young females", which seems a bizarrely detached way for even a midlife-crisising man to think - but he definitely finds her hot. Hot, that is, in a really, really patronising way: after reflecting on her "beautiful thick-lashed eyes, moist and yearning", he proceeds to think of her as an animal:
Yet he smiled down at this awkward buxom girl standing so passively before him. Like a young farm creature, a sleek young calf for instance, waiting to be herded in one direction or another.
Alma is, I think, the most interesting character in the novel, in the sense that she's the one who feels closest to a human being. We mostly see her through the eyes of the other two protagonists - more on the third in our trio, Dimitri, in just a moment - but on the occasions when we are party to her thoughts, she's a fascinatingly vivid creation, all longing and rage and inarticulacy:
And Alma made sure he wasn't creeping up on her like he did sometimes (without him knowing she saw him in the corner of her eye) and she was prowling restless and hot Hate hate hate both of you Jew kike bastards and her heart was pounding like she'd sniffed the purest coke straight up into her brain and she watched seeing her hand open a glass-fronted bookcase in Seigl's study and from a shelf she pulled a book that made her smile almost, small as a children's book, which was what she thought it might be, the title sounded like a children's fairy tale, Anna Livia Plurabelle, but when she opened it and tried to read the tiny print swam in her eyes, fucking words made no sense like they were not English or any kind of English she'd been taught and her heart kicked in resentment and fury and her hands yanked the covers of the little book back until she heard the fragile spine crack and she smiled with childish satisfaction like a boy yanking a frog's legs apart tearing the frog into two pieces. There! Fucker.
Her inarticulacy, in particular, makes her stand out: in a novel filled with people who spend a lot of time telling eloquently plausible half-truths or downright lies about themselves, Alma is someone who is oppressed by words. Her struggles to explain herself - to name herself - are so often suppressed and stunted by others' abuse and condescension, or her own fear and incomprehension, that she repeatedly resorts to physical, (self-)destructive ways of expressing herself: the damaging of one of Joshua's books, here, or the use of her body to keep people (men) interested:
Saying now, to make Dmitri who was sullen and sulky and disgusted with her love again, as in high school she'd tried to make boys love her who'd gone out with her once, twice, three times then dropped by saying weird wild things that flew into her head, anything to snag their straying attention, "Guess what? He said he had some sickness. 'Medical condition' he said. This cane he has..."
Even, here, when she does use words, they are desperate and scattershot things that "flew into her head", rather than tools she can marshall to regain control of a situation or express her thoughts.
Alma's lover, Dmitri, is a much less nuanced portrait: a villain at whom we can readily hiss, but not much more than that. Even his own point-of-view describes him as a "predator", and when we're told that he feels "a thrill of pity" for Alma when he first sees her, it provokes a shiver of misgiving. Here is an example of where I'm determined to try Oates again, because 'thrill' is a wonderful choice to combine with 'pity', offering a beautifully concise shock of Avoid! This! Man! - who gets excited by a fellow human being's vulnerability, except someone skin-crawlingly creepy? - without overplaying the hand. It's a shame, then, that Oates doesn't stop there, instead piling on the evidence of Dmitri's wrongness with each fresh page. Exhibit A:
He was feeding her now, watching her eat. [...] Sometimes watching females gorge themselves disgusted him but Alma was different. A beautiful soft fleshy goose you wanted to fatten. Stuff her milky white face and throat with the richest foods till her liver swelled, ripened, burst.
Ick ick ick I do not want to spend an entire novel in this man's company get me out of here.
Dmitri hates Jews (or at least the Jews like Joshua that his confirmation bias lets him see): they're rich, he's not, thanks to their "cunning and conniving" natures and/or "possibly a gene". But most of all he hates women, and likes to spend as much time as possible musing on how his abusive, manipulative and eventually violent power over Alma makes him feel more like a man, and how if he were only as rich as Joshua he'd be sleeping with some desirable woman rather than "slut white trash" like Alma.
A human punching bag, this Tattooed Girl.
Every guy needs this, sometimes.
Her mouth was bleeding. Her nose. Handfuls of hair yanked out. A tear in one of the soft, dopey-looking nipples.
Alma is 'the Tattooed Girl' because of a tattoo on her cheek. Superficially, the difference between Joshua and Dmitri can be seen in the divergent ways they respond to their first sight of this tattoo: Joshua's impulse is to try to brush it away, as if it is a temporary blemish, whereas Dimitri sees it as a target that he might aim a fist at. But is Joshua's dreamy musings on the female form and his comparison of Alma to "a sleek young calf" really different in kind, rather than degree, to Dmitri's imaginings of her as a goose for fattening?
Neither of them credit her with much of a mind of her own. Joshua thinks of her as a "simpleton" and a "child"; her likely virtues as an assistant, he reflects, will be that she is, "Not very bright, maybe. But steadfast, dependable. Likely to be loyal to her employer. And never critical", and once she is working for him he tells himself that "[s]imple repetitive household tasks that would have been maddening to Seigl seemed to be consoling to her", blissfully ignorant of the fact that she is stewing in unfocused anger at him. To Dmitri, she is a sexual being without self-awareness or possibly even self; she is a "slattern", who has "a look about her like she wasn't wearing any clothes but didn't know it". To Alma herself, she is helpless:
For the Tattooed Girl was the first to concede her weakness for adoring any man who refrained from kicking her in the gut, as she adored any man who did kick her in the gut, out of a craven need to adore any man.
This is, essentially, the novel; I haven't mentioned Joshua's unbearable sister Jet, who swoops in periodically to tell Joshua what a genius he is, strike dramatic poses, and talk a lot about how having Jewish heritage on one side of the family gives her the right to annexe other people's genuine suffering to the grand and terrible project of being a spoiled rich girl with bugger all to do. It's possible she's mentally ill, as it happens, but goodness knows Joshua doesn't stop gazing at his navel long enough to notice. What develops is a sort of Gothic novel: we duly wallow in luridness, hatred, and Joshua's pompous self-absorption:
Seigl had intended to begin with his manuscripts. Clearly, this was urgent. Yet, faced with the prospect of seeing what he'd accumulated over the past fifteen years, and of needing to reread so much, he felt weak, defeated beforehand. To be a writer was a moral commitment, maybe he hadn't the strength. The tragic grandeur of his subjects mocked his feeble talent. [...] he lapsed into a sudden, stricken silence.
As I wrote in my notes on this book at several points, frustrated: YES, IT'S SO HARD TO BE YOU.
So: moments of wonderful insight and skill and subtlety, lots of dreary histrionic silliness to wade through to get to them. Please, point me towards some better Joyce Carol Oates, because on this evidence I would love to discover her work.