I came across TAMPA by Alissa Nutting when I was opening the mail at a summer internship, sorting books into piles based on format and date of publication. When I pulled TAMPA out of its envelope, I stopped dead, an involuntary grimace creeping across my face. Most of the dust-jacket was covered in a fine, black flocking with a texture between sandpaper and worn-out velour. I initially thought it was meant to evoke some sort of fur. Someone else suggest a chalkboard. We passed it around the office at arms length until someone voiced the thought that had slowly dawned on us all. Pubic hair. Everyone groaned and I quickly dropped the book back into the arrivals bin. After reading a few intriguing reviews, I grabbed a spare copy of the book that was floating around the office. As it turns out, the cover is perfectly matched to the content. Both are viscerally repulsive, purposeful, and controversial. When I tried to recommend it to a friend, I realized I couldn’t think of any helpful points of comparison. I was reduced to repeatedly claiming that it was “really interesting” in the hopes that she would just read it herself we could talk about it. When I read the blurb on the jacket, I imagined a beach-read cross between Fifty Shades of Grey and a James Patterson paperback: a titillating piece of x-rated adventure. When my boss described it as well-written and deeply disturbing, I imagined something more like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or a lesser Lolita: a smart, sexy thriller, or an achingly beautiful tale of moral destitution. TAMPA is none of the above. TAMPA might be the most unusual book I’ve ever read.
Alissa Nutting’s first novel is not mainstream literary fiction. Its shocking plot straddles the pulpy line between horror and erotica. Certain scenes bring to mind the kinky, nauseating sex in Chuck Palahniuk’s novels, but TAMPA lacks the sardonic, self-awareness of Fight Club. Celeste Price, narrator and protagonist, is a 26-year-old middle-school teacher with an insatiable sexual appetite for pubescent boys. She's sociopathic, cunning, perverse, and predatory. In another book, she might make an appealing spy, computer hacker, or assassin. Unfortunately, she expends her villainous energies on seducing 14-year-olds. When she succeeds in her mission, the reader experiences none of the satisfaction of watching a carefully-orchestrated heist pan out. Instead, we get scene after scene of graphic, appalling sex. Celeste schemes, masturbates, complains bitterly about her husband, masturbates, seduces young boys, masturbates, gripes about her co-workers, lies, masturbates, participates in one and a half acts of manslaughter, and masturbates. The secondary characters are deftly-drawn cartoons, carefully rendered, but ultimately one-dimensional. This is Celeste’s story, and Celeste is bad.
Celeste is like no other female character I’ve ever read. She’s not the flawed, sympathetic, and ultimately triumphant caricature of a “chick lit” protagonist. She’s not the sexy, badass, secretly-needy love-interest, or the manic pixie dream-girl that male authors sometimes write. And she’s definitely not a nuanced, realistic portrayal of a woman as a human being. She approaches a couple of tropes, but the first-person narration and intimate portrayal of such an abhorrent personality make her more than just a slut or a succubus. She’s a middle-schooler’s wet dream who has developed a voracious, disturbing will of her own. Celeste is a trophy wife, with a husband who keeps her comfortable financially in exchange for sex, bragging rights, and a pretty face to serve his drinks. She’s smarter, more ruthless, and more powerful than any of the men who fantasized her into being. They don’t see her as a real person, and she isn’t one. She’s a piece of weaponized sexuality, devouring the hapless men who imagine that she exists for their personal pleasure, yet the length and complexity of the novel prevents a simple, allegorical reading.
Nutting doesn’t seem interested in proving her talent as a wordsmith with passage after passage of purple prose. Instead, she orchestrates a masterful clash between TAMPA’s familiar surface structure and its shocking, repulsive content. It’s compulsively readable and continuously confrontational. She manages to make the reader’s enjoyment or fascination feel like something dirty. The book reads like well-polished genre fiction-- crisp, direct, and focused on conveying the lurid details of Celeste’s life above all else.TAMPA may have elements of romance, thriller, and erotica, but it is a long way from conforming to the conventions of those genres. Reading it as romance or erotica is like biting into a piece of fruit to find it full of squirming maggots. Reading it as literary fiction feels like a personal assault. So much mainstream literary fiction features main characters just a little bit better or worse than the average reader. These stories are often built around a familiar stage of life (middle age, young adulthood, etc.) or scenario (marriage, travelust, a death in the family, etc.). At its best, that kind of realistic fiction offers a new way of seeing. We compare and contrast our own experience of the world with the world portrayed in the book, delighting in the similarities and learning from the differences.The idea that Celeste could be familiar or realistic is unsettling enough to make even the most open-minded reader shudder.
Celeste spends her days as a teacher thinking of ways to work sex into discussions, the A/C turned up to display her nipples through her silk blouse. She asks students to stay after class and then strips for them behind the locked door of her classroom. The book is vomit-inducing erotica, carefully calculated to simultaneously produce uncomfortable physical arousal and visceral moral disgust. Celeste never ponders the possibility of her own guilt, let alone repents. She understands that her actions are illegal and taboo, but the idea that they might be wrong is out of the question. Having such a repulsive, unrepentant villain narrate her own tale is something I might expect to run across in a short story. Nutting’s genius is in keeping it up for fourteen chapters and 200+ pages.TAMPA doesn’t offer the immediate, pulse-pounding satisfaction of a mass-market paperback. Instead, it offers a slow-burning, intellectual and emotional provocation at odds with its pulpy-sounding plot.
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