A Novel by Alissa Nutting
2013 / 272 Pages
Alissa Nutting’s debut novel has been heartily compared to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita in terms of subject matter and level of controversy, but let me assure you, even Vladimir Nabokov would blush after reading the first chapter of Tampa. Told from the perspective of a female pedophile, the novel turns the tables on the social and legal definitions of the crime until we are left with nothing but nuances. 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. Simply put, this novel is not for lighthearted or “gentle” readers – it’s disturbing, graphic, and raw. But at the same time, 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.
Our filthy little antihero is named Celeste Price. At first glance, she is an incredibly beautiful and intelligent grade school teacher with a doting husband and sexy red convertible to deliver the pristine package of her body. But no one takes just one glace at Celeste, and she is completely aware of this fact. She nonchalantly describes herself as “a model home ready for viewing” on page 3. But all the energy she pours into her physical appearance is specifically for the benefit of adolescent boys. And while she takes great pains to hide this fact from her husband and her peers, Celeste’s narrative voice is anything but apologetic or ashamed. She explains:
I felt like a child when I saw middle-age partners and remembered they had sex together – there was still that initial sense of horror and denial. What aspect of either one of them could be pleasant to touch or to see, even in the darkest room? Sex struck me as a seafood with the shortest imaginable shelf life, needing to be peeled and eaten the moment the urge ripened…in my view, having sex with teenagers was the only way to keep the act wholesome. They’re observant; they catalog every detail to obsess upon. They’re obsessive by nature. Should there be any other way to experience sex?
But if teenage boys are obsessive about sex, Celeste is a full-fledged maniac. It’s all she wants, all she thinks about – Mrs. Price has essentially built her life around the ability to seduce young boys, and she really hasn’t had any complaints. But from the first day of the new school year, Celeste notices something different about Jack Patrick. Not only is she intensely attracted to him, but his personality and family life make him an optimal candidate for a sexual partner – at least until his voice drops and his physical appearance departs the realm of boyhood. Young Jack surely sprang from Garden of Eden, and Celeste wastes no time showing him the paradise of her body.
But of course, Mrs. Price doesn’t just want to entertain her own sexual fantasies – she wants to completely possess the body, mind, and spirit of Jack Patrick – and he is quite willing to be taken. Eventually, however, her ambitions trump logic and caution, and Celeste must slither through all sorts of obstacles to preserve their secret. Things get complicated, then dangerous, and then deadly – but Celeste’s sociopathic personality never stops thrusting and probing toward the fulfillment of her own desires.
Tampa is likely to be the most controversial book of the decade for the literary community – not just for its graphic depictions of sexual acts and fantasies, but for its ability to make readers question the inherent nature of human sexuality and the legal system that frames it. As a society, we are programmed to believe that maternal instincts reside in every woman and that there is no greater moral crime than pedophilia. But more than anything, sexuality most closely resembles the traits of adolescence – a hormonal confusion of desire, social rules of engagement, and the constant tug and prod between urge and expectation. How can we define what is normal or appropriate when sexuality itself is borne from an indefinable nerve cluster of want, need, infatuation, and yearning? Sex is inherently abstract, and Alissa Nutting knows exactly how to frustrate and provoke readers to define the vagaries of human sexuality only to make them realize that such an attempt can solely result in failure.
Much like Nutting’s short story collection, Tampa indulges the voyeur in us all and asks readers to shed their skin of expectations and personal morality to consider: What if? And what then? Nutting does not provide answers to the uncomfortable questions she poses, but perhaps there are none. Perhaps, in the end, we are shockingly animalistic – a warm, throbbing clump of bones, skin, nerves, instincts, and actions. And yes, Nutting takes these theories to the unpleasant and extreme, but to be in the literary presence of such a bold and daring writer is worth every appalling second, and nothing less than an honor.