Book review: Alissa Nutting’s “Tampa”

Alissa Nutting’s debut novel “Tampa” certainly isn’t lacking when it comes to publicity.

As soon as her book came out on bookstore shelves last July, public opinion was immediately split. While The Daily Beast branded it a “modern ‘Lolita’” and the New York Times gave it a favorable review, The Telegraph called it “fatiguing” and some bookstores in the United States and Australia have refused to stock the book because of its controversial sex scenes.

Here in the country, “Tampa” quietly appeared on bookstore shelves, with copies on display at the recently concluded Manila International Book Fair. While the buzz is yet to arrive here on Philippine shores, I took a look at Alissa Nutting’s debut to see if it really lives up to the hype.

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In “Tampa”, readers follow the story of Celeste Price, a beautiful 26-year-old about to start her first year as an eighth grade English teacher in suburban Tampa, Florida. To outsiders, she is living the dream — married to a rich and handsome police officer who provides for her every need.

But for all the comforts that she has, there is one thing that Celeste craves more than anything else — 14-year-old boys. It is a sexual obsession she has been harboring for years and the main reason why she is taking the teaching job at her school.

Celeste sets her sights on her student, Jack Patrick, and within weeks she has him completely under her spell. The pair’s trysts are clandestine, held either in Celeste’s car after school, in the classroom in between periods, or in Jack’s house whenever his single father is not at home.

But as the school year progresses, it becomes harder and harder for Celeste to keep the world from discovering her and Jack’s illicit affair. Even as she continues evading exposure again and again, the noose is still tightening inexorably around her neck. With her capture becoming more and more imminent, how much is Celeste willing to do to escape arrest continue feeding her obsession?

It’s easy to see why “Tampa” has caused such a controversy among critics and readers alike. Celeste is both a terrifying and fascinating character, like a road mishap that one can’t help but keep looking at.

Nutting doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to illustrating just how single-minded and voracious a predator Celeste can be. The novel’s very first paragraph is of Celeste masturbating to the thought of all the boys she would be teaching on her first day of school, and her fantasies only escalate from there.

“Tampa” could have just as easily devolved into pornography right there, but the situations that Celeste finds herself in are so out there that it’s hard not to take them as anything else than comedy. It’s hard to think of anybody who might be aroused by reading about Celeste  putting a piece of paper with a teenage boy’s name inside her vagina, or of Celeste almost being caught with her pants down — and a vibrator inside her — while spying on Jack, especially the way that Nutting has written it. One is compelled to turn the pages just to see what else Celeste gets herself into.

Rather than titillate or arouse, what these scenes succeed in doing is painting a fascinating look into the mind of a pedophile, perhaps in a more truthful way than Vladimir Nabokov did with “Lolita”. Because of its luminous prose and the charming way with which Nabokov has drawn his protagonist, it’s easy to forget that Humbert Humbert is essentially destroying the life of a young girl. Why else would some people call “Lolita” a “love story”?

Nutting doesn’t aim to paint a charming portrait of Celeste at all — she is a monster through and through, with little regard for anything else other than her own desires. Throughout the novel she longs to leave such an impression on her young victims that they still think of her even in their adulthood, and it’s a brilliant description of how damaging sexual abuse can be, no matter the gender of the perpetrator.

Even Nutting’s physical descriptions of Celeste give her an alien sheen, like a doll or an insect ruled only by her primal needs. When Nutting describes the folds of Celeste’s vagina closing and tasting only themselves, “no fresh, squirming insect of thin adolescent fingers against their cheek”, it’s hardly arousing and most definitely terrifying.

The fact that the pedophile in this novel is a woman also allows Nutting to comment on the sexism that allows women like Celeste to remain at large in the real world. Because her victim is a boy — and because “boys will be boys” — Celeste manages to get away with a lot. The final, poignant confrontation between Jack and Celeste is especially jarring, as society’s expectation of teenage boys is cleverly turned against Jack. It’s the real moment where Jack loses his innocence, and the coldness with which Celeste responds to his loss is damning and telling. Nutting certainly has no sympathy for the devil here.

Difficult as it is to read — mostly because of the sex scenes — those who persevere in reading “Tampa” will definitely be rewarded. Celeste will remain in the readers’ minds long after they’ve finished the book, and hopefully for all the right reasons.

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