July 8, 2013 by markstani
It’s a strange literary world we live in, in which countless millions seem willing to wet their knickers over crap like ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’ as if the Black Lace books had never existed; in which sectors of society can whip up indignant froth over soft-core top-shelf stuff when sex of an all together more explicit kind lingers just one click away on all our home computers.
The way in which we – and that’s a global, generalised we – allow sex to permeate our everyday lives is shrouded in such inconsistencies and there’s no doubt Alissa Nutting’s new novel Tampa (pub. Faber) exists as a mighty challenge to some of our ill-judged and awkward attitudes in that respect.
Is ‘Tampa’ titillating? You’ll have to seek out the book and make up your own mind: I’ll spare you the kind of non-contextualised excerpt that could hardly help but paint Nutting’s novel up as something it resolutely is not.
It’s about an eighth grade English teacher called Celeste Price who is obsessed – sociopathically so – with seducing fourteen-year-old boys. It’s about the lengths she will go in order to achieve her aims (drugging her cop husband is just the start). It’s about obsession up to and beyond the brink of madness.
It is, then, not necessarily anything new. Didn’t a guy called Vladimir Nabokov once scribble something similar? The difference is this: in delving to the depths of her first-person narrator’s pitch-black psyche, Nutting spares us none of the details. She describes every act and intention, every tryst and taboo, in meticulous detail. There is no Bad Sex Award stuff here, no blush-faced lugubrious metaphors like the kind employed by authors who seem simply too embarrassed to address the facts. It’s sex as sex is, in all its perverted, plain-speaking detail.
In its profoundly shocking, ravenously readable glory, ‘Tampa’ challenges all our preconceptions about sexual extremes head-on. Does the bluntness of Price’s detail make her crime any more unpalatable than the narrator of the more arty-inclined ‘Lolita’? Would a handful of poems and a bunch of roses have swayed us further in her favour? Is it possible that we can find a story about a character who would go down as a predatory paedophile in anybody’s book remotely sexy? To what extent does it tempt us – in particular, male readers – to go down the old road of – ‘I wish I had teachers like that in high school‘. Yet at the same time if the roles had been reversed – if ‘Tampa’ had a male narrator, and his prey were fourteen-year-old girls, would we all have tossed the book in the fire by the end of the first page?
In exposing us so readily to such inconsistencies, ‘Tampa’ is by any standards a shocking and disturbing book. Even more so for being inspired by a truth: Nutting was once class-mates with a high school teacher Debra Lafave, who was arrested in 2004 for sleeping with a student.
‘Tampa’ succeeds in neglecting to judge its central subject, allowing all the more space for us to make up our own minds. The more you zip through the pages, the more you come to realise it is not actually sex at its central core: Price craves power as much as the sex itself, as if she can only protect her own mortal fears about ageing by implanting a part of her youthful self in the minds of her young victims for ever.
It’s the bravest book you’ll read all year. It’s also the one you’re likely to read the most rubbish about, probably mostly penned by the ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’-gripped hordes.