As an undergraduate, I devoured Joyce Carol Oates' novels every chance I could get. A decade on, I find that my enthusiasm has waned to a near-vanishing point, and The Tattooed Girl perhaps explains why. All of Oates' favorite themes and technical tricks are here: the long, breathy sentences alternating with short, terse paragraphs; long lists of objects and events, all tumbling over each other; physical and mental breakdowns of some sort; sometimes inexplicably twisted psyches; obsessive behaviors; mundanely nightmarish atmospheres. This relatively short novel takes on a number of very big themes, including the irrationality of anti-Semitism, the ethics of Holocaust fiction (and, by extension, of imaginative writing itself), the weight of history and memory, and the collapse of personal identity. The title character, Alma, is a mysterious, sexually abused, and anti-Semitic woman who passes for a teenager; she is both physically repulsive and bizarrely alluring. Her counterpart is Joshua Seigl, ailing author of a bestselling Holocaust novel. Both Alma and her pimp/lover Dmitri (another anti-Semite) think that Joshua is Jewish--but, in fact, only his father was a Jew. Joshua, who hires Alma as an assistant, finds himself experiencing feelings of desire, paternal protectiveness, and revulsion, sometimes at the same time, while Alma first loathes him (in company with Dmitri) and then adores him (once Dmitri fades from the picture). As with so many of Oates' novels, Joshua and Alma are drawn together because both are irreparably broken; there's no hope for either love or redemption here.
While I was reading, the word that kept creeping into my head was..."facile." Oates doesn't seem particularly comfortable imagining her way into the heads of anti-Semites, which means that despite the back cover blurb's boast that she "probes the tragedy of ethnic hatred and challenges accepted limits of desire," the probing doesn't get far below the epidermis. Dmitri and Alma have opinions that seem drawn from a mishmash of the Protocols, Holocaust revisionism, Christian anti-Judaism, and just garden-variety xenophobia; they are, to put it mildly, stereotypical in their mode of stereotyping. While both characters clearly use "the Jews" as a convenient way of organizing the world's evils, Oates never gets much into the whys and wherefores.
Similarly, while Oates gestures at the debates surrounding the production of Holocaust fiction, she skates over what such debates might imply for fiction more generally. Alma finds the very concept of fiction revolting:
"Alma, I think of myself as writing stories for others. In place of others who are dead, or mute. Who can't speak for themselves."
"But you don't know. You write like you know and you don't know."
"I know what I've been told, and what I can imagine. I know what I, myself, have felt. "
Alma said, disgusted, "You're stealing from them. Some people you didn't even know. And other prisoners in 'D-Dash--'"
"--in that place, you're pretending you were there with them."
Somehow, this seemed to Alma the most repulsive act of all.
"You made 'Dash-aw' up, too, didn't you! You made it all up! You pretended you were there, and you weren't. It's all lies." (252)
Joshua sees fiction as a form of imaginative ventriloquism, motivated by the need to restore a "voice" to those who have been silenced. (This position will sound familiar to anyone who has read some of the recent scholarship on Holocaust fiction.) His self-justification, while in and of itself unexceptionable, nevertheless sounds inauspiciously subjective: he may be writing for others, but he certainly refers to "I" quite a bit. Alma, meanwhile, balks at Joshua's claim that imagination can produce truth; she identifies witnessing with reportage. For her, experiences are concrete in their particularity--an experience is a thing that belongs to one person. If an author imagines your experience, that is, you lose instead of gain. Given how intensely the novel identifies Alma's identity with her body, it's not surprising that she imagines memory in materialist terms. Nevertheless, her position rules not only Holocaust fiction but also historical fiction and even fiction per se out of court.
To a certain extent, the narrative suggests that Joshua's fiction was, if not misguided, at least not written for the reasons he claims; in a drug haze, he admits that "I couldn't tell the truth. They tried to buy their way out--to deny that they were Jews. I lied for them!" (273) Joshua, who can barely stand up under the weight of his own past, writes a novel that is, in effect, revisionist myth: unable to face his ancestors' survival tactic, he makes them stick to their identity guns instead. In one sense, Alma is, paradoxically enough, correct. His "lies" benefit himself instead of his ancestors: he appropriates their experiences in order to lighten the historical burden for himself. (There's an immediate parallel in his sister, Jet, who keeps trying to speak for Joshua--with ultimately unfortunate consequences for Alma.) Given the number of literal and metaphorical crematoria in this novel, one has to wonder to what extent we're supposed to see Joshua reenacting Judaism's obliteration. But--and here's the problem--this revelation allows Oates to sidestep the metafictional questions raised by Alma's anger. To what extent can any author escape Joshua's position, even with the best intentions? Is there an "ethical imagination," so to speak? Now, like Dan Green, I don't think Oates needs to be in the business of offering solutions to Big Questions--that's not something fiction is equipped for or even good at, as far as I can tell--but if she's going to bring up these questions and then propose local solutions, shouldn't she then face their larger implications for her own work? After all, aren't there ethical issues involved in her own publisher's claims for the novel's purpose? For this reader, at least, the facile intellectual quality I mentioned produced an unpleasant aesthetic effect--a kind of half-woven tapestry.