Joyce Carol Oates is fascinated by the seedy corners of American life. Her recent novels are narrated by orphans, mutilated girls, the abused, the impoverished, celebrities destroyed by fame, children from families destroyed by rape. Oates’s books often open with a riddling exposition which implies a hidden trauma. We Were the Mulvaneys (1996) begins: ‘No one would be able to name what had happened, not even Marianne Mulvaney to whom it had happened.’ ‘Lover’, from Faithless: Tales of Transgression (2001): ‘You won’t know me, won’t see my face. Unless you see my face. And then it will be too late.’ Middle Age: A Romance (2001): ‘You leave home one afternoon, you never return as yourself. Leaving home, you don’t anticipate not returning as yourself. The home you’ve left ceases to be a home once you’ve left. If you fail to return.’ Oates’s brittle narrators find themselves overwhelmed by events, plunged into solitary desperation. ‘And now how lonely. How alone, and how lonely . . . I felt such acute loneliness, the physical shock and panic of loneliness, I could not bear to be by myself,’ the narrator of I’ll Take You There (2002) writes. Oates’s Marilyn Monroe, the heroine of Blonde (2000), was a study in confused frailty, a woman longing for love, entertaining intellectual ambitions no one took seriously, teetering on too-high heels, in too-tight dresses, slowly stripped bare for the reader. Her narrators are open and conspiratorial, ‘sharing their pain’ like a support group of Molly Blooms.
This intensely confessional style seems to pour from Oates’s pen. It has great advantages, lending dynamism to the prose, tussling a reader into the plot. And it shifts copies: We Were the Mulvaneys was endorsed by Oprah. Trauma narration is a popular genre, especially on TV. It’s not just Ricki Lake and Jerry Springer: Friends or Frasier or Sex and the City or Will and Grace supply comforting fodder for Friday-night viewing – recognisable types, recognisable low-level traumas (couple angst, single angst, sex angst). The question is whether Oates’s variant of the trauma style constitutes significant writing. Do these stories of rampant grief say something about American society, or do they merely wallow in the sensational psychobabble of adversity?
Oates is a writer of substantial reputation, the recipient of the National Book Award and the PEN/Malamud Award in the US. She has been compared to Roth, Bellow and Updike, with whom she shares a loosely generational sense of the significant, a list in which Vietnam, postwar Communist trials, the coming to consciousness of the Jewish community in the US, the assassination of Kennedy and sexual liberation loom large. But unlike Roth or Bellow, Oates doesn’t insist on an intellectual canon, or place her characters among a cultural elite: Bellow signals a protagonist’s status by listing his contacts (‘Conrad Aiken praised him, T.S. Eliot took favourable notice of his poems, and even Yvor Winters had a good word to say for him’ – Humboldt’s Gift); Roth often writes as a fictionalised version of himself, an internationally recognised writer approached by characters who want him to write about them. Oates’s novels, by contrast, tend to describe less exalted surroundings, and rely on attracting readers by the characters’ background or the compelling nature of their circumstances. One glaring difference is the male writers’ use of humour: Herzog, Portnoy and Rabbit are bleakly comic characters, played for groans of recognition from readers. Roth or Updike can move from poignancy to porn in a page, from raddled lust to a sense of its abject absurdity (Mickey Sabbath’s self-mocking epitaphs in Sabbath’s Theatre, or most of Rabbit’s antics). Oates’s fictional worlds are too harsh for belly laughs or even wry smiles.
In her latest novel, The Tattooed Girl, Oates appears to respond to the comparisons made between her work and that of Roth et al. The book is dedicated to Roth, and in it one of Oates’s portraits of white-trash despair comes into contact with the cloistered East Coast Jewish intellectual community. Alma Busch has been mutilated by a gang who scrawled tattoos across her body. She is a seedier version of Oates’s Marilyn Monroe: she finds her breasts gross and over-heavy, she is disgusted by her menstrual blood, as so many of Oates’s female characters are, she searches desperately for love, she aspires to better things, she is alluring and mysterious to men, though not to her pimp boyfriend, Dmitri.
There is also a rival narrative consciousness, the Jewish intellectual Joshua Moses Seigl, 38 years old, generally agreed to be brilliant, his reputation established by his first novel, The Shadows, an account of the Holocaust. Seigl is immeasurably wealthy and lives in a mansion in the most desirable part of town, when he isn’t being fêted at conferences or awarded honorary doctorates. Yet he is compellingly, romantically unworldly: he ‘looked like a man who has dressed quickly in the dark, a man who avoided mirrors’. He is nervous and jarred like Herzog, self-berating and uncomfortable with his reputation like the fictionalised versions of Philip Roth. Free of the priapic obsessions of Sabbath or Portnoy or the gynophobia of Bellow’s Sammler, Humboldt or Ravelstein, Seigl is wilfully solitary, stripped of ties: ‘A big ungainly man with a curious kind of grace’. At the beginning of the novel he advertises for a personal assistant: ‘Preferably a young man. Women, even quite young women, had a disconcerting habit of falling in love with him.’ He interviews a worthy spread of young hopefuls, busy about doctorates, ‘articulate and intelligent’, knowing ‘Latin, Greek, German, French, and a "smattering” of Italian’. But they are too deferential, too impressed, and Seigl’s scepticism about himself means that he finds them absurd in their eagerness.
Seigl has despaired of finding a non-sycophantic assistant when he bumps into the Tattooed Girl, who has taken a rest from whoredom and found a job in a bookshop. Alma is ‘crouched over a carton of second-hand, mostly coverless books, awkwardly stacking them on the floor . . . biting her lower lip, working her mouth as if trying not to cry’. Seigl is fascinated:
The fleshy young woman with her unnaturally white, soft skin and mica-glinting eyes reminded Seigl of prostitutes he’d seen in Prague a few years before. Very young, often slightly plump, glamorously made up, sulky, perhaps tired, yet childlike in a kind of stubborn ignorance. He’d seen such girls off duty, so to speak, sitting in bistros with their lovers or pimps, and had wondered at their lives. He hadn’t known whether to pity them, or feel outrage or even uneasiness on their account. Did they resent their lives? Were other lives available to them? What right has an American observer to feel pity, even sympathy, for them, if they don’t feel this way about themselves?
Seigl decides to employ her. She will suit him, he hopes, because of her ignorance, because she knows nothing of his world or his standing within it. He takes her back to his house, tells her she is his equal, not his slave, and then sets her to work hoovering his carpets and ironing his shirts.
Initially the difference between Alma and Seigl is maintained in their interior monologues. Seigl’s are all disciplined musing and quotations from Virgil: ‘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.’ Alma’s are all trauma and loose prose: ‘Seeing how she might set herself and him on fire dousing with gasoline and dropping a lighted match as she’d seen boys once setting fire to a limping muddied stray dog when she was a little girl and like the boys she would shriek with laughter at his antics in death. How do you like it now! How do you like it!’ Seigl makes things coherent, or dwells on their indeterminacy: ‘His Marxist sympathies aroused him to a vague self-disapproval and yet: receiving an income freed him from any obsession with money-making.’ Seigl understands his background, its particular significance, the meaning of his name: ‘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.’ Alma spills everything out, understanding little, mainly aware of her unhappiness: ‘Where do you live, I live in Hell. I am a child of Hell. I am an American and a child of Hell. Ask me if I am happy, I am . . . Where do you live they asked the Tattooed Girl. I live in Hell she laughed. For always the Tattooed Girl was good for a laugh.’
Yet the balance shifts between the two characters. Seigl is diagnosed with a possibly fatal nerve disorder, which weakens him and makes him lose his desire for solitude. And we are led to understand that Seigl and Alma are both tattooed, both labelled in the eyes of society. The tattooing of the inmates of concentration camps is explicitly invoked. Alma is branded and blonded and generally exploited, and she in turn brands Seigl as ‘the Jew’. When she is not stuttering obsequiously to Seigl, she is wallowing in anti-semitism: ‘Fat Jew lips like a baboon’s asshole. Talking to himself and laughing and I think he’s calling for me but he isn’t. He’s at the dining room table reciting poetry I guess it is "Virgil” rocking forward and back in his chair his eyes shut not knowing anybody else exists . . . Hate hate hate the Jew.’
Oates is capable of subtle and ambiguous portraits: her dissection of an affluent New York suburb in Middle Age revealed a rich variety of characters, variously engaged in complex affairs. The protagonist, Adam Berendt, was an intriguing anti-hero, his unconventional genius revealed by the novel to be a community myth. In her bleaker moments, however, Oates suggests that for the impoverished, for those who cannot retreat into their mansions, identity is destiny. Her characters are laced into restrictive identities by the prejudices of those around them: women are pursued by men’s stares, burdened by their breasts, disgraced by their genitals; non-whites are subjected to aggressive racism; Jews, even reclusive Jews like Seigl, are the victims of whispered anti-semitism. But the tensions of The Tattooed Girl are often too easy, too polarised: the only serious conversation between Alma and Seigl takes place when he challenges her clearly idiotic view of Jewish history: ‘Of course the Holocaust "happened", Alma. Not in one place but in numerous places in Europe. "Holocaust” is a term to indicate the systematic genocide of more than six million Jews and the deaths of more than five million gentiles in Europe by the Nazis.’ Roth has turned explicitly to the question of Israel in works such as Operation Shylock. Oates, by contrast, suggests that the central question for the contemporary Jewish intellectual is Holocaust-denial, a minority occupation, but nonetheless a matter in which right and wrong – or good and evil – can be clearly established.
Alma finally decides to kill Seigl. She grinds up glass and puts it in his food. She thinks, repeatedly: ‘I hate him . . . See he’s having trouble walking some days?. . . It’s like he’s surprised every time he can’t make it on his own. Bullshit. Like a little kid crapping his pants pretending he didn’t know it was going to happen, it isn’t his fault.’ Dmitri joins in: ‘Whining, bellyaching, blaming people for whatever happened which some historians were doubting ever happened, in fact. The Holocaust might be a hoax. Biggest hoax of the 20th century’ (he is surprisingly well informed about revisionism). And then there’s Seigl’s equally irrational sister, Jet, who says to Seigl: ‘That cow is your live-in whore, isn’t she?’ Jet’s hands are ‘balled into fists, as if about to leap at him. Her bloodshot eyes glared, there was a glisten of madness in her face.’
The only character in possession of anything like negative capability, Seigl dwindles – perhaps from a lack of mental exertion, from endlessly talking down to the characters around him. He stops thinking about Virgil and starts to think about Alma. By the end he is sitting up all night speculating about whether she fancies him: ‘Alma Busch was a riddle,’ he thinks.
Alma had a way of seeming to fade out of a room when Seigl glanced up, as if her fleshy body were an apparition . . . He’d been furious with her and had disliked her and he was telling himself he felt sorry for her, never would he speak ironically to her again, or with emotion quavering in his voice.
Seigl falls in love with her; she falls in love with him. He starts thinking like her: ‘My heart is filled with hope. This is rebirth. My redemption. Every cell in my body will be cleansed and made new.’
It is an unruly descent into narratorial homogeneity. Stream of consciousness is no longer in itself a startling device, so it has to do something – to build the characters, or entice us towards them. Some might muse constantly on the meaning of existence, others might rage internally against their boss. Others again might switch between the trivial and the grand, between pasta salad and Procopius, or potatoes and eternity. Roth has said that a brilliant mind can think about trouser tennis and Tacitus at the same time, but Seigl’s obsession with the Tattooed Girl entirely supplants the trials of Aeneas in his mind. This is distressingly implausible: either we refuse to believe it, in which case we lose our respect for Oates, or we lose our respect for Seigl, because unlike him we have seen inside Alma’s head.
The relationship between Alma and Seigl, who is made older by his proximity to death, is a crazier version of those between Roth’s ageing protagonists and their vital younger women, women with robust libidos and little inclination to analyse the classics: thirtysomething Jinx, shared by the Philip Roths in Operation Shylock, thirtysomething Faunia, loved by 71-year-old Coleman Silk in The Human Stain, Drenka in Sabbath’s Theatre. These women are frequently gentiles; Jinx is a reformed anti-semite now the devoted partner of a Jewish man. Alma’s buxom beauty (‘very attractive’, ‘oversized at the . . . breasts’, with a ‘slack sensuous red mouth’) is that of Roth’s earthy women: ‘a wide mouth, the warm interior of which she showed you, like a happy, panting dog’, ‘spendidly white teeth’, ‘substantial breasts’ (Jinx); ‘at the provocative edge of being just overweight’, ‘big breasts and big thighs’, ‘full mouth’ (Drenka); ‘the look of someone for whom both sex and betrayal are as basic as bread’ (Faunia). And Oates’s grimy lexicon of sex words – words such as stiff and matted and slime and mucus and smell and odour and sweat and rank – owes much to Roth’s lexicon, but she lays them on so thick that the novel starts to seem like a parody of Roth’s excesses. The sweaty and bloody corporeality is pushed at the reader until it is no longer shocking, the relentless playing out of dodgy fantasies becoming instead faintly embarrassing.
You wonder why Oates has done this, if it isn’t to expose the failings of Roth’s prose. The deaths at the end of her book – Seigl’s heart attack, Alma’s murder – could be the coup de grâce, putting these aged stereotypes out of their misery. Except that Alma is murdered by Jet, a rigidly glamorous analysis-junkie and stereotype in her own right. And the novel doesn’t read like a parody, lacking the snatches of irony that inflect Roth’s fantasies. Oates’s unrelenting seriousness makes her book even more puzzling, especially as a novel written by a woman. It may be that The Tattooed Girl says less about America than it does about the stranglehold of certain conventions and cultural standards on American fiction. The characters are removed from reality, the book itself less a novel than a clumsy melange of debates, mixed up with academic ‘written on the body’ theory and sub-Jamesian, unter-Freudian, après-Lawrentian ideas about potency and the invalid.
Oates’s prose can seize hold of you, grab you in a headlock, but in this book even her most muscular writing can’t entirely suppress the thought that things are too simplified, the pitch too shrill. There are moments – Roth knows, Updike knows – when despite our self-absorption and trauma fetish we understand that we are ludicrous. The Tattooed Girl is so determined to wring every last bit of blood from its characters, to shock to the core, that the reader is pushed too close to the catalogue of sex crimes and deaths, worked on too forcibly, and emerges to find that she hardly cares at all.