Summary: Joshua Seigl, a relatively famous author and academic, finds himself in failing health and decides to hire an assistant. In an unplanned moment, he asks Alma, a quiet and mysterious new arrival in town, to help him. Joshua battles his demons as a writer as Alma deals with her past.
Musings: I'm rather new to Joyce Carol Oates, but she appears twice in the 9th grade curriculum - one of the summer reading options is her young adult novel Big Mouth and Ugly Girl, and all my classes read her fabulous short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?". I picked this novel up at a book fair that was giving away books, and, enjoying the works above, finally got around to reading it.
To start: this book is terrible. Truly, terrible. Not boring terrible, dense terrible, or cliched terrible- just terrible.
Most of the book repulsed and disgusted me. Perhaps it's supposed to (for what purpose?), but it literally upset my stomach. There is a strong fixation on the body in the novel, particularly Alma's breasts and body odors. Everything was "fleshy." Both men in the novel were constantly thinking about and digesting her body. Objectification of women is certainly not new, but I curdled inside reading the men's descriptions. Not surprisingly, the insecure men blame women for their troubles, then only see women as sexual objects. I would assume we are supposed to be put off by this behavior (ugh, I was), but I didn't see the men being particularly condemned. Instead, their behavior was explored as deep and personal.
I was also confused (and, again, repulsed) by the virulent anti-Semitism. There is a huge emphasis on Seigl's "Jewishness," even though he's only half Jewish (on the wrong side) and not practicing. The hatred Alma and Dmitri felt for him as a Jew befuddled me more than anything else. I suppose the virulence is given so much attention to highlight Alma's later growth, but it didn't quite work for me.
Joshua's crazy sister appears in the first part of the book for no apparent reason, then disappears only to reappear randomly and without real explanation.
I started to feel a bit more positive toward the book in the last quarter as Alma and Joshua began to explore some kind of communication. Alma's thought process started to make some sense. Then Oates went and included the most moronic ending (way worse than Farmer's!) that's straight out of a terrible horror movie.
I typically feel more eloquent when praising a book than condemning it, but I do feel like I need to get this off my chest and out of my mind.