Conversational Era: Tampa by Alissa Nutting

Conversational_Era

Welcome to Conversational Era, a new semi-regular collaborative feature which finds us chatting with readers, authors, & fellow bloggers about a myriad of different subjects.

Today, Jackie Bailey joins Aaron and Karli for an in-depth spoiler-free discussion about Alissa Nutting’s Flaherty-Dunnan longlisted novel Tampa.

Jackie Bailey loves reading so much that she gave up her ‘proper’ job as an analytical chemist in order to sell books online. She has been blogging at Farm Lane Books (http://www.farmlanebooks.co.uk) for five years and reads a wide range of books, concentrating on those that have been shortlisted for a literary prize.

She lives in Surrey, England, with her husband, two sons and a large Bernese Mountain Dog.

Alissa Nutting’s debut novel Tampa has been compared to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita in terms of subject matter and level of controversy. Told from the perspective of a female pedophile, Tampa boldly steps over and then whips around to crush the boundaries of the taboo and the controversial in the realm of sex and literature.  While disturbing, graphic, and raw, much of the sexual imagery is so superfluous and detailed that the story dips heavily into satire and mockery – not mockery of pedophilia, but of the culture that so tediously defines sexual boundaries and desires to the point of obsession.


Tampa

Tampa

Karli: First of all, Tampa has been hailed as one of the year’s most controversial novels due to its graphic sexual nature.  Some critics have argued that the book is gratuitously graphic while others have hailed the book for its bravery and satirical perspective.  Where do you stand in this argument?  Do you think the book is groundbreaking, appalling, or somewhere in between?

Jackie: At the start of the book I thought the sex scenes were unnecessarily graphic. It was basically pornography and I felt that the detail had only been added to cause controversy, but as I neared the end my opinion changed. I realised how clever the narrative was and do think this is a groundbreaking book. All the previous student/teacher relationships I’ve read about have involved love of some sort. This was the first to show a predatory paedophile and the questions this book raised were even more disturbing than the ones in which relationships developed unintentionally over a longer period of time.

Alissa Nutting

Alissa Nutting

Aaron: At the start I too felt as though I was about to be subjected to endless pornography, but as the spokesperson for the male reader here, I can honestly tell you that there’s nothing pleasurable about reading Nutting’s novel.  When the narrator/school teacher/child molester Celeste derived pleasure from writing a boy’s name on a scrap of paper and shoving it as far up her vagina as it would go or when she quite purposely, and happily, tried to bruise her asshole, I wanted to immediately close the novel and walk away.  It’s interesting, and perhaps to Nutting’s credit that those scenes bothered me much more as a reader than Celeste’s seduction and subsequent copulation with her fourteen-year-old student Jack Patrick.

Celeste is clearly the very definition of an unlikable protagonist.  What message is Nutting trying to convey to the reader by presenting her in such an unflattering light?  Is she making a case for a belief that all sexual predators have not even a single redeeming value as human beings?  I ask because Celeste’s condition is obviously harmful not only to herself, but also all of those around her, yet Nutting doesn’t really want us to feel even a single shred sympathy for this damaged woman who obviously can’t control her impulses.  Why?

Tampa (UK Cover)

Tampa (UK Cover)

Karli: I think Celeste represents a parody of all sexual offenders – kind of an amalgam of society’s worst fears when it comes to women sexual predators particularly.  She’s attractive, in a position of power, and highly sexualized.  In fact, she’s probably every man’s dream, except for the fact that she prefers sex with teenage boys than with men her own age.  I think as a culture we are programmed to place sexual offenders in a social box of “wrongness” – a place of no moral ambiguity or blurred lines, and Celeste challenges this notion for us.  She doesn’t look, smell, or feel like a sexual predator, and that’s what makes the book so disarming for readers.  If a sexual predator can be beautiful, sensual, and feminine, our entire notion of what a “normal” sex offender should look like is shattered and we’re forced to confront all kinds of notions that make us uncomfortable.

“Sex offender” is such a blanket label for criminals.  The same term is applied to a prostitute as it is to someone like Celeste.  Whose crime is worse?  How can we possibly compare two scenarios that are so vastly different?  This is why I think Nutting wrote Celeste’s character the way she did.  Society needs a more extreme example than a prostitute or a flasher to convey the legal and social ambiguities that come with the sex offender label.  I don’t think we’re supposed to relate to Celeste or feel sorry for her, but many readers may find themselves simultaneously repulsed, amused, and turned on by her, which takes this discomfort to a whole new level.

But at the same time, our own feelings for Celeste and her behavior might not be grounded in the facts.  It may look like everything is consensual (still creepy, but consensual), but how can we know whether or not we’re getting the truth?  Why do we trust Celeste’s account to be true?  Because she’s sexy, wild, and every teenage boy’s wet dream?  Maybe she just sees herself that way…she might not even be “hot” at all for all we know.  And at times, the sexual imagery is so superfluously graphic that Nutting is blatantly reminding us that the novel is indeed a social parody.  If we truly consider these aspects of her character, do you think that Celeste’s version of the story is true?  Or have we been manipulated in the same way that everyone in Celeste’s life has?

Debra Lafave (The Real Life Celeste Price?)

Debra Lafave (The Real Life Celeste Price?)

Jackie: I don’t see any reason to doubt Celeste’s story. She may have over emphasised her physical attractiveness, but she doesn’t portray her actions in a very flattering light. It was disturbing to see how easily she manipulated the boys and how society consents to such behaviour. Attitudes would be very different if the sexes were reversed. I normally prefer flawed characters, but there was something about Celeste’s relentless pursuit of boys that made her fascinating to observe. It forced me to consider whether or not some people are truly evil and I wonder whether she’d continue to seek gratification if the consensual aspect was removed?

I loved the way the book made the reader think about how things might change as she ages. Worryingly, I suspect that she’ll continue to get away with it as teenage boys regard age/experience as a status symbol. Do you think that Nutting portrayed the teenagers in a realistic way? Could they really be trusted to keep their actions secret?

Aaron: I suppose it’s a wishy-washy answer, but both yes and no.  I think the more often than not, children that are abused have a difficult time expressing what’s happening to them to family members and those closest to them out of feelings of shame or guilt, or because they’re being told that bad things will happen to the people that they love if they do.  I think Nutting does a good job of explaining Celeste’s system for finding the perfect boy that will suit her needs, one that’s not too cocky and won’t brag about their sexual escapades together, however I’m not sure that someone with her compulsion, a woman that also appears to be a prescription drug addict and an alcoholic, would possess the restraint necessary to be so careful when choosing her victims.

As far as keeping the secret, I think the important thing to remember here is that these boys that she targets to repeatedly rape really don’t see themselves as victims.  Even though the law says that their not of the age to consent to what’s taking place, they certainly do seem to be willing participants and they also seem to engage with her and keep the secret because they’re entering puberty and their sexual desires are taking control.

One thing Nutting doesn’t address in the novel is if Celeste’s actions are turning her victims into future offenders.  Do you think that Jack Patrick and the other boys like him that Celeste raped time and again can go on to have healthy sexual relationships in their adult lives or are they forever ruined?

The Book's Warning Label

The Book’s Warning Label

Karli: I think that’s a really difficult question to answer because the book focuses so heavily on Celeste and her actions as a perpetrator rather than the actions and thoughts of the victims.  And because Celeste is the narrator and cares so little about the potential consequences of her actions, we are presented with very little information regarding the mentality of her victims.  But with the being said, I have a feeling that poor Jack Patrick might be a little traumatized to say the least, especially considering his legal involvement and the death of his father.  So in Jack Patrick’s case, it might take a few years of therapy to clear out the psychological weeds that Celeste surely planted.  But I am also of the opinion that it’s not fair to speculate about sex abuse victims in general.  Each case is so vastly different, and depending on one’s socioeconomic status, level of external support, and psychological health, each sexual abuse situation will yield completely different results.

Jackie: I think that Celeste’s victims will go on to have healthy sexual relationships. She taught them how to have gentle erotic sex and they always seemed to respect her. Many teenagers now learn about sex from violent and disturbing videos on the Internet. Those who learn about sex from porn will have far less healthy relationships than those taught by Celeste. This is one of the reasons that Tampa is so disturbing. What is the world coming to when it is better for boys to get real life experience from a pedophile than from watching uncontrolled, often illegal, videos online?

Aaron: Wow.  I think you may have just exposed the novel’s saddest truth.


Alissa Nutting’s Tampa was longlisted for this year’s Flaherty-Dunnan Prize. It is currently available in from Ecco Books in the US and Faber & Faber in the UK.


Jackie Bailey loves reading so much that she gave up her ‘proper’ job as an analytical chemist in order to sell books online. She has been blogging at Farm Lane Books (http://www.farmlanebooks.co.uk) for five years and reads a wide range of books, concentrating on those that have been shortlisted for a literary prize.

She lives in Surrey, England, with her husband, two sons and a large Bernese Mountain Dog.

About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.