What if Humbert Humbert in Lolita or Patrick Bateman from American Psycho was a woman? That is the question that Alissa Nutting addresses in her deeply unsettling debut novel Tampa.
The story is told from the perspective of 26-year-old Celeste Price, a gorgeous junior high teacher who seems to have it all: a stable career, an attractive husband on the police force and a secure home life that allows her to indulge in some luxuries — including the anti-aging creams she covets. However this is all simply a cover for her to pursue her deviant obsession: 14-year-old boys.
Unlike Humbert Humbert of Lolita, there are no illusions here of romance or infatuation. Instead the reader is confronted with a sociopathic fetish which aligns Celeste more with Patrick Bateman or Alex from A Clockwork Orange. The novel features graphic depictions of her pedophilic sexual fantasies and activity and therefore in its own way is as difficult to read as watching American Psycho. The details are so uncomfortably effective that they leave nothing to the imagination. It should come as no surprise that this novel is very controversial.
Celeste is profoundly misanthropic. Early on in the novel she asks herself “Why [does] anyone pretend human relationships [have] value?” Other characters, described from her perspective, often come off as grotesque caricatures of real people. She has no friends and resorts to drugging herself to simply withstand any kind of intimacy with her husband. Most of her time is spent envisioning barely-pubescent boys to allow herself to bear the presence of others, which she must endure in order to “educate” her young victims. I found myself feeling the same way toward Celeste that she feels towards people in general. However she is a distinct character that I thoroughly enjoyed cringing at. Celeste begins to fill the absence of complex and devious female anti-heroes and villains, an issue receiving increasing coverage in the media.
Gender is always at the forefront of the text. In interviews, Nutting said she attended high school with Debra Lafave, a conventionally attractive young woman who pleaded guilty to lewd or lascivious battery in 2005 for having sex with one of her 14-year-old students. This caused Nutting to consider the way female predators are often dismissed or sensationalized in a way not seen with their male counterparts. Celeste’s gender and beauty allow her to slip under the radar where a male teacher would surely raise some red flags. Nutting asks the reader to challenge their ingrained assumptions about women as ‘pure’ or ‘maternal’ and acknowledge the way ‘pretty’ privilege works in society.
The text is not without its weak points. The other characters often came across as two-dimensional and Celeste is the only fully developed one, which is alternatively compelling and frustrating. This creates a problem with the dialogue. While it is realistic, it also felt too obvious and strained. Part of that can be attributed to Celeste’s own discomfort, but I would like to have seen a more organic flow to conversations which would quietly articulate what the other characters were thinking. The prose style is so direct and blunt that it sometimes left me longing for something more abstract or suggestive. While this stays true to the character’s mind, it offers no change of pace for the reader. Consequently, Tampa reads like a first novel, fresh and eager but still stumbles along the way.
The strongest element of the novel is that it does not moralize or tell the reader how to feel. The narrative is purely and consistently Celeste, who easily rationalizes and justifies all her actions. This forces the reader to contemplate their own moral compass and Nutting offers no definitive answers. If nothing else it was refreshing to read a text where the author isn’t trying to subtly guide the reader’s emotions. Regardless of whether or not you like the book, it’s an experience you won’t be able to forget — even if you try.