Sexual Perversity in Tampa
By Dr. Derek Nikitas, Director, Bluegrass Writers Studio
Alissa Nutting’s Tampa is arguably the most controversial book of 2013. Surely it takes the number one slot on Santa’s naughty list. It’s NC-17 enough to make Anaïs Nin put her fingers to her pursed lips, but the real threat of Tampa is the voice of its female-predator narrator, Celeste Price. It’s how Celeste bites down on American culture, chews it up, and spits it back in our faces.
How can you resist an experience like that?
Tampa is the story of a middle school teacher in her late twenties whose two obsessions in life are maintaining her youth/beauty and bedding teenage boys. Her story, in her own unflinching words, is equal parts enthralling and disturbing, funny and sick, honest and deceptive.
It’s a harrowing exercise in perspective, a sharp satire, and, if you ask me, a great entry in the canon of literary crime fiction. I think of all those famous femme fatales from the history of noir, the Bridget O’Shaughnessys and Cora Smiths, finally stealing their much-deserved time at the mic.
It might be comforting to think of sick Celeste as a straw-woman Bride of Frankenstein: too extreme, too heartless, too sociopathic, too self-absorbed, a farce of all our worst fears about what a soulless contemporary America has engendered.
And she is, in a way. The specters of Debra LaFave and Mary Kay Letourneau threaten to make Celeste’s “type” disturbingly real (and weirdly concentrated in the greater Tampa area), but the legitimate chill comes from knowing how Celeste reflects our culture, more than any particular predator. It’s easy to dismiss one sick lady, but not so much a walking, talking, fornicating idea.
Okay, so it’s impossible to catch the premise of this book and not expect Lolita with the genders reversed. But Tampa is something else entirely. No matter how much Lolita’s Humbert Humbert makes you squirm, there is always the comforting presence of Nabokov, winking from the wings, assuring you it’s all just a game.
The genius and power of Tampa is that there’s no such safety net. Except in the sharp and skillful sentences, Nutting is nowhere to be found. Instead we get Celeste’s boldfaced “confession,” which turns out to be an exhibition instead.
Strong reactions to Tampa abound, but careful readers will discern the distance between themselves and Celeste’s intended audience. Because she’s the star of her own soliloquy, amusing herself at our expense. She hardly even notices us. And if we for a moment become complicit, we have only ourselves to blame. That’s what makes this book so deliciously insidious.
Celeste’s monomania is Tampa’s driving force, and we are trapped inside her speeding mind. Without warning, Nutting abandons us to the monster that is Celeste from the very first provocative sentence: “I spent the night before my first day of teaching in an excited loop of hushed masturbation on my side of the mattress, never falling asleep.”
If you think that sounds hot, then you’re soon to suffer a third-degree burn.
Alissa will be in Lexington reading and fielding questions as part of the Bluegrass Writers Studio 2014 Winter Residency. Come on out and see her, January 11th, 2014 at 5:30 p.m. at the Downtown Lexington Hilton, 2nd Floor Triple Crown Room.
Published on December 10, 2013