Celebrated author Joshua Seigl, an idiosyncratic bachelor and confirmed recluse—young but in failing health—reluctantly admits to himself that he must hire a live-in assistant to help him with his increasingly complicated professional and personal affairs. Then one day at the bookstore he encounters Alma, a young woman covered with bizarre tattoos, who stirs something inside him. Unaware of her torturous past—the abuses she's suffered, the wrongs she's committed, the virulent hatred that seethes within her—Seigl decides that she is the one, and he has no idea that he is bringing an enemy into his home.
With her unique, masterful balance of dark suspense and surprising tenderness, Joyce Carol Oates probes the tragedy of ethnic hatred and challenges the accepted limits of desire.
About 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, and has been several times nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She has written some of the most enduring fiction of our time, including the national bestsellers We Were the Mulvaneys, Blonde, which was nominated for the National Book Award, and the New York Times bestseller The Falls, which won the 2005 Prix Femina. Her most recent novel is A Book of American Martyrs. 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.
Hometown:Princeton, New Jersey
Date of Birth:June 16, 1938
Place of Birth:Lockport, New York
Education:B.A., Syracuse University, 1960; M.A., University of Wisconsin, 1961
Read an Excerpt
The Tattooed Girl
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.
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.The Tattooed Girl
A Novel. Copyright © by Joyce Oates. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Table of Contents
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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.
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.
I find this book kind of hard to review. Of three Joyce Carol Oates books I've read, all have had characters which I disliked intensely. This book was no exception except for the fact that I did want to finish reading it to see what would happen. You might say I was engaged in the characters even though I would have preferred not to have been.This is the story of a young woman, Alma Busch, who either had a tattoo (presumably) or had a severe blemish on one of her cheeks. She was hired by Joshua Siegl, a 38-year-old single successful writer, to be his assistant at home because of his increasing difficulty remaining safe and independent at home alone due to an unidentified, progressive neurological disease. Basically, Mr. Siegl "rescued" Alma from the devastating "employment" by her lover Demitri. Demetri is a snake! While employed in a cafe, he coddles up to Mr. Siegl, but behind Mr. Siegl's back, he makes unending derogatory remarks about Jews. I know this is part of the character of this ignoramus, but page after page of reading this kind of talk left me feeling rather bleak and offended. Mr. Siegl annnoyed me as well. He was the "oldest" 38-year-old I have ever read about. Despite his physical disability, he seemed to have the character of a very old man.Alma herself was a simpleton. It wasn't just that she lacked intelligence, it was the way she reacted to situations that greatly distressed me.Oates' writing always has a "dark" side. I know this. However, I could not find it in my heart to "like" this book. Maybe Oates' writing just means to do exactly this - push me into psychological places I'd rather not be.The ending of this story was interesting as it was not what I had expected. However, I'd rather forego recommending this book and try to find another book by Joyce Carol Oates that I might like a bit better to suggest to others.
Now I know why Joyce Carol Oates is such a fanatistic writer. The way she develops the characters in this book is nothing short of amazing. Throughout the book, you feel the suspense of a person who is misreable with herself and takes that out on a man because someone told her that he needed to be hated because he was a Jew. A typical case of blaming someone else for their own misery - having no real reason as compared to the Nazi's and the German peoples misery of the time being diverted to the Jews. An incredible analogy but as the characters develop, the very subject of hate becomes the subject of overwhelming love. The ending is inevitable and sad. But the pieces all fit together. I loved this book. It was deep and important and Oates deserves accolades for this.
In this novel, Oates explores the forging of identities despite history, preconceived notions and class obstacles. Oates has an unparalleled ability to develop her characters through pure, raw emotion. Their voices resonate strongly through their anger, fear, compassion, ignorance, and love, creating complex relationships which are constantly evolving. There is hope throughout the book that love and openness will triumph over prejudice and hatred. The brutal ending, however, brings the reader back into the harsh reality, where folly and darkness show that humans still have a long way to go before fostering a culture of acceptance.
True to form, Oates has constructed a dark tale of love and betrayal with the constant themes of classism and antisemitism. The problem with this novel is that while Oates' construction of sentences is poetic and compelling, her construction of the narrative is slow-moving at best. I found that by the time I'd reached the climax of the book I was too used to the slow pace for any of the downward spiral - which takes pace rather fast - to make sense. And while the characters of Seigl and Alma are beautifully crafted, the changes that Alma undergoes are such a quick pivot that the ending feels rushed.
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.
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.
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.
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 hardships...to LOVE them....to 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 again....you will truley love this book. Read it!
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.
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 end...in 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 books...at least one more before I give up. Just don't expect anything spectacular.