The Tattooed Girl by Joyce Carol Oates (a damn good writer…)

I took a break this past weekend from my “regularly scheduled” reading and read a book that I’ve had on my iBooks app for about a year. It’s Joyce Carol Oates’s novel, The Tattooed Girl. The funny thing is I don’t remember when I bought/downloaded it or why. I know last summer someone in my book club had picked a JCO short story for our short story reading month, and I seem to recall that I had foolishly/accidentally bought an e-copy of the book both on my Nook and my iBooks app. But now I only see The Tattooed Girl in my iBook library, and NOT I Am No One You Know, the short story collection. Maybe I had meant to download the one book and accidentally downloaded The Tattooed Girl. Regardless of all that, I am really glad I had, because I really, really liked the book. In spite of being pretty dark and often depressing, it is one of my favorites thus far this year.

In addition to the title intriguing me (yes, I may be that shallow when it comes to girls and tattoos 🙂 at least that’s what some of my friends would argue… ) in the midst of the Stieg Larsson books’ juggernaut, the storyline was interesting to me too. Described in the summary as a tale of “dark passions, prejudice, and the strange forms love can take” it also included several themes of interest to me, personally (in addition to the aforementioned tattoo fascination). The main character, Josh Siegl, is an introverted, middle-aged scholar who has, several years ago, written a best seller about the holocaust, and a family’s tragic navigation of that event. Although now working on a new translation of Vergil’s epic poem, The Aeneid, he has been “drifting” for some time now, and is also beginning to experience symptoms of a neurological disorder. Though “in denial” about his condition, he does decide to take the drastic (to him anyway) step of hiring an assistant. His various neuroses, however, lead him to find a reason to avoid hiring any of the qualified applicants. Something of a “cold fish” Oates says of him at one point, “He hated raw emotion, melodrama. He hated the willful sabotage of reason, the triumph of the blood.” Now that’s good stuff…

Enter Alma, the title character, who Siegl meets while she is working in a bookstore. Though not very literate, she somehow catches his attention and interest, and she ends up becoming his assistant. We the readers have met her previously when she wandered half-starved into a cafe where Siegl frequently plays chess, meeting there the waiter Dmitri, a predatory, bitter, small-time criminal/pimp amalgam. He pays her enough attention to win her confidence and make her fall in love with him. This allows him to use her, as pretty much everyone has all her life. (in a nice touch, Oates has the Alma character coming from a Pennsylvania town – perhaps based upon the actual town of Centralia – which an underground coal mine fire has rendered a nearly literal hell on earth).

Dmitri’s influence helps poison Alma against Siegl, leading her to adopt his anti-Semitic and holocaust denial views and opinions. Siegl is for a long time ignorant of her anti-semitism and continues to treat her kindly. Both of them experience personal growth as a result of their association, but the reader is unsure if the growth will be enough to overcome Siegl’s illness and Alma’s prejudice. I hoped for a happy ending. Whether or not that hope was in vain I’ll leave for you to find out if you choose to read this excellently written novel.



  1. Melody said,

    June 27, 2011 at 3:01 pm

    I agree that she’s an incredible writer…especially considering her output. Her imagery in this book often made me squirm…whenever I hear the word “fleshy” I think of Alma and shudder a little bit–such a visual.


  2. Jay said,

    June 29, 2011 at 11:58 am

    Hi Melody,
    I know what you mean about the graphic imagery. There sure were a lot of “Eeeww!!” moments in the book. I never really was able to hold a clear impression of an image of Alma in my mind throughout my reading, although my impression of her, personality-wise, was quite vivid all the way through.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: