Tampa is the much-talked about, widely reviled, and heavily debated inaugural novel from writer Alissa Nutting. It is based on the real-life events of a Florida teacher who had sex with her underage students. In it, we are introduced to one of contemporary fiction’s most unbelievably cold and calculating sociopaths, Celeste Price. While most of literature’s psychologically imbalanced men and women tend to be masochists and/or murderers, Celeste is instead an obsessive-compulsive sexual deviant and addict. She just cannot get enough of the fourteen year old boys. Yes, you read that right. She, a 26-year-old high school teacher, preys on adolescent boys.
Indeed, Tampa is likely to be one of the latest and greatest in a long line of books that are sure to face (or face again) censorship and library ban requests. Why all the drama? Well, let’s begin at the beginning: Nutting’s principal character (the young, first-time teacher, fresh out of her education program) opens her story with a masturbation scene, which leads into her recounting an anecdote about her first sexual experience with a boy, when she (and he) were just fourteen. Thus the scene is set for her lifelong fascination with youthful teenage lovers. Everything is told, by the way, in graphic, explicit, highly imaginative detail.
Shockingly, this reality is probably not the most unappetizing element of the book. After all, there are places in the world where 14 (or younger) is the age of consent. There are some nations and religions which marry-off their girls before they have even reached puberty. So, while the age issue might be nauseating to most of us in certain political and social circumstances, it is not the worst of the story. What is truly disturbing is Celeste Price’s narcissistic self-involvement, her willingness to do absolutely anything, to anyone, in order to get her way. Maybe that means whoring herself out to a student’s father. Maybe it results in psychologically damaging a young man, probably permanently, by making him believe that he is responsible for his own parent’s death. Anything goes, as long as Celeste gets her sex.
At first, I was put-off by the very cold, clinical narrative approach. The prose is distant, almost willfully antagonistic. It is such as makes the reader not at all sympathetic to the Celeste’s “plights.” But, of course, that is entirely the point. Celeste is a cold woman who sees things in a very bizarre, unnatural way. Life, for her, bends toward one direction – sexual gratification. Her next fix is almost always on her mind, so all other matters fall off, like rain on a thrice-waxed automobile. Are all sexual predators as entirely consumed as Celeste? Probably not; however, creating a grotesque so as to make a particular point is one of the oldest narrative techniques, and it still works (as long as we do not fall into the trap of taking everything so literally).
Overall, I was satisfied with the book. Perhaps satisfied is not quite the appropriate work, given the subject matter. I think Nutting pushes the envelope – she is bold and daring in an environment and climate which, currently, is ever ready to pounce and condemn. Unfortunately, her characters are quite lacking in breadth and development, which does mean the story falls somewhat flat emotionally, but I am not convinced that that is not somewhat intentional (I do feel for Celeste’s primary victim, sometimes, but that is about the extent of it – even her husband leaves much to be desired in terms of empathetic ability).
It is easy to understand how some have mistaken this novel for pornography. After all, nearly every page (and certainly every chapter) is littered with sexual innuendo, sexually explicit inner-monologue, or actual depictions of (sometimes insanely wild) sex acts. But, pornography? No. The purpose of pornography is to sexually arouse a person and stimulate them to orgasm. That is not the purpose of this book. Yes, it is graphic and, yes, it is detailed – it is, as much as I hate the word, highly taboo. But its purpose is much greater than “to be daringly titillating.” In fact, that is not the point at all. The narcissistic, sociopathic machinations of this school teacher may seem unbelievable, but that is exactly the point – there are people in the world like this (or near enough), and we, Nutting seems to say, remain happily and almost intentionally blind to this fact, particularly when it comes to viewing young women as potential sexual predators. How do we imagine pedophiles, after all? Creepy middle-aged white men? But, what if that ridiculously attractive young woman happens to have a sexual preoccupation for young boys? Or young girls?
My problem with the way it begs this question (and it is a good question), is that it does seem to fetishize, in a way, pedophilia or sexual predation from this vantage point. That is to say – a traditionally written book about a sexual predator would likely make the villain wholly repulsive – and that villain would usually be a middle-aged white man. Here, when the tables are turned and it is a female sex villain, she is almost unimaginably attractive, so much so that it is not just the young boys, but also their fathers (and maybe even some female colleague teachers) who want to devour her. It’s a dangerous tightrope Nutting walks, and it leaves open for discussion some additional, important questions. How do we view problematic sex situations, and how do we envision the “bad guys?”
The book isn’t supposed to strike terror into the hearts and minds of every young teenage boy (most would probably enjoy this book, actually) or their parents, but it is supposed to open the dialogue, and it does so by creatively re-imagining events that actually happened. It is a groundbreaking piece of work, but that doesn’t mean everyone will be able to stomach it.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adults+
Interest: Pedophilia, Sexual Predators, Abuse, Sociopathic Behavior, Narcissism, Psychology of Sexuality, Sex Addiction, Creative Nonfiction, Crime, Gender Roles (Stereotypes).