Author: Alissa Nutting
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Genre: Adult fiction
Length: 250 pages
Advance reading copy provided by The Reading Room
Most of us prefer not to look at dark things. But sometimes we must, in the interests of wisdom and justice. I didn’t know what to expect when an advance reading copy of the novel Tampa by American author Alissa Nutting arrived on my desk. I hadn’t heard anything about it and, in hindsight, I’m glad. I wouldn’t want to have read this book with preconceptions.
Nutting fearlessly tackles a huge challenge in writing Tampa. Not only in terms of the confronting subject matter she has chosen (paedophilia), but also in the way she chooses to tell the story: the first-person point of view of a pathological paedophile who is a smoulderingly attractive female teacher with a ‘thing’ (her words) for fourteen-year-old boys.
The protagonist, Celeste Price, is a train wreck of a human being: cold, manipulative and calculating. Nutting has executed an impressive literary feat in depicting the predatory mind of a true sociopath. The narrative doesn’t hold back. Nor does it let up. It’s relentless in its pursuit of the truth of this character and how utterly self-absorbed and self-serving she is.
I can’t say I liked the story, because I didn’t. But the storytelling was so compelling I couldn’t put the book down. Reading it was a bit like watching the video footage of New York’s Twin Towers collapsing: it struck me through with horror at what was unfolding but was so unbelievable and monstrous I couldn’t turn away.
Generally speaking, the lines between porn, erotic fiction and erotica are often blurry. By common definition, erotica is where literature ventures into the dark, transgressive aspects of the human psyche. Tampa’s subject matter probably places it squarely in this arena; however, the unabashed graphic sexual content makes this an uncomfortable placement. This novel is in no way erotic. It’s creepy and shocking, and the predatory atmosphere it creates would make it more at home in the crime/thriller genres.
From the outset Nutting states she aims to raise the issue of the differences in the treatment of female as opposed to male sex offenders. To a degree she achieves this, although not before she’s dragged the reader through an intimate journey of abuse at the hands of Celeste Price. And I’m still not convinced the gratuitous detail that dominates most of the novel actually serves this purpose.
Nutting demonstrates how female paedophilia is trivialised in a thought provoking scene toward the end of the book where Celeste’s lawyer is interviewed on a talk show in front of a sexy photo of Celeste in a bikini. The interviewer waves at the photo and asks, ‘If you were a teenage male, would you call a sexual experience with her abuse?’ The fact that Celeste is a strikingly beautiful female is portrayed as excusing her behaviour.
You’d be surprised (or perhaps not) at the number of people, men in particular, who are inclined to agree. Community focus is drawn away from Celeste as a perpetrator abusing her position of power and is instead turned to her teenage victims, who are almost seen as ‘lucky’ to have bedded her. Nutting’s narrative suggests a private envy expressed by the men involved in or discussing the case. In terms of demonstrating community double standards she makes a strong point.
For some reason, many people still believe that boys are less vulnerable to harm from sexual exploitation than girls. Notwithstanding the common differences in sexuality between the genders, we have a different lens through which we view male and female sexuality. An underage boy might feel confident enough to brag about a conquest with a female teacher, while an underage girl would remain quiet for fear of being labelled a slut. In truth, variation occurs within each gender, and Nutting provides this contrast when Celeste moves on to her second teenage lover.
However, after spending more than three quarters of the book in Celeste Price’s head while she manipulates and abuses her inexperienced victims, the real issues arising from the narrative only emerge toward the end of the book and, to me, they felt rushed. Unfortunately some of the points Nutting tries to make lose punch because the narrative is so deeply constrained by its point of view.
The public ramifications of Celeste’s behaviour are somewhat glossed over, because that’s what suits the story’s narrator. The long-ranging impact on Celeste’s victims is suggested, rather than explored. We don’t see how other adults counsel them, or how her other students respond to the exposure of her crimes. This interested me because it’s the impact of the behaviour, not the behaviour itself, which contains the moral lesson in a story like this.
In writing The Yearning I deliberately chose to use both the student and teacher point of view, to bring the human complexities of the relationship into focus. Socially we want to make monsters of adults who undertake relationships with young people and in some cases, as demonstrated by Tampa, we should. But Celeste Price is one type of human being, and Solomon Andrews (the teacher in The Yearning) is another. What seems to differentiate them is how much they care about their victims and the consequences of their behaviour.
Celeste Price is only interested in protecting herself, at any cost. Solomon Andrews wants to protect both himself and his young lover. He struggles with the moral imperatives of the relationship, feels guilty for the damage he knows he’s doing, and is at a loss as to what to do with his feelings for her. This is in stark contrast to Celeste Price who clearly doesn’t care for her victims in any way. She only cares about preserving them long enough to get what she wants from them.
Without a context for Celeste Price’s behaviour (Nutting provides almost nothing of the character’s background), and without real insight into her effect on her victims, it’s difficult to find a point where the issues the novel raises can be analysed confidently. As readers, we can only draw from an unreliable narrator’s version of events – a distinctly uncomfortable position to be in with Tampa. No doubt this is the author’s aim, but it is a difficult line for a writer to walk: how to fully explore a compelling story when your narrator is as distasteful and untrustworthy as Celeste.
Modelled on Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita, Tampa is already causing a stir in pre-release reviews. Public response to it is destined to be extreme and divided, and I tip my hat to Nutting and her publishers for their courage in committing a work like this to the public domain. I hope they are well prepared for the fallout.