Joyce Carol Oates has always been obsessed with violence, and her new novel, The Tattooed Girl, is no exception. The book is full of allusions to the Holocaust, and when the characters are not hurting each other, they are thinking about it.
The central character, Joshua Seigl, is a reclusive writer celebrated chiefly for his Holocaust novel, The Shadows. He needs someone to organise his work and to give him physical assistance, as he suffers from a debilitating nerve disease. He makes a strange choice of amanuensis: the Tattooed Girl, or Alma Busch, a lumbering young woman disfigured with inept, abstract tattoos. Alma is inarticulate and uneducated but Seigl's interest in her is not purely professional. (There are echoes in this relationship and elsewhere of Philip Roth's The Human Stain.) They oscillate between attraction and repulsion, and when his health declines, their relationship is put to the test.
Seigl's desire for Alma is more than simply lust. It is a yearning for completion: "For a flawed soul yearns to be healed: in secular times, we require the stranger to complete us, where we lack the strength to complete ourselves." At first, Seigl's longing for her seems unlikely, but he is drawn to her precisely because she is so unlike him: Alma is white trash, he is a wealthy Jew; she has no interest in books, whereas his house is stuffed with them.
And although Seigl has merely written about the Holocaust, which he never experienced, Alma has been raped, beaten and forcibly tattooed, the marks recalling those on the wrists of concentration camp inmates. Seigl has little ability to comprehend the Tattooed Girl's brutal past, and likewise, she cannot understand the brutal past of his people: she is an anti-Semite who questions whether the Holocaust ever took place.
Slowly they shed their prejudices and come to care for one another. The love that develops is awkward and never overdone. And the story is in no danger of becoming mawkish, given that its protagonists are so unpleasant. Seigl lashes out at Alma when she spills his food, and his praise of her is as patronising as if she were "a dog or a retarded child". For her part, Alma, convulsed by anti-Semitic loathing, steeps dirty tissues in his tea and puts her own menstrual blood in his beef stew.
Seigl and Alma are unappealing, but two other characters are downright nasty. Alma's boyfriend administers savage beatings, acts as her pimp and filches her wages. Perplexingly, he is easily disposed of at the end of the novel with a kick to the groin. Seigl's sister is another caricature, both overdrawn and inconsistent. Merely a spoiled prima donna at the start of the book, by the end she has inexplicably become a psychopath.
Oates has written that her work "deals with the phenomenon of violence and its aftermath, in ways not unlike those of the Greek dramatists" - that is to say, off-stage. Seigl's Shadows succeeds because it depicts the Holocaust obliquely, and in The Tattooed Girl the most haunting violence is also that which occurs off-stage: the gothic climax, however, fails to convince.
In writing about violence melodrama always poses a danger. Oates falls into this trap in the depiction of her minor characters but manages to avoid it with Seigl and Alma. She excels at depicting the small ways in which we are nasty to each other and in this novel at least, it is in the depiction of prejudice - not psychosis - that Oates is at her best.
Helena Echlin is the author of Gone (Vintage)