Book Review : Alissa Nutting - Tampa (2013)
Tampa is a novel people talk about with an mysterious smirk on their face. They're quick to praise author Alissa Nutting's reckless commitment to her character, but claim it's not a novel you can love in the conventional sense of the term. It's constantly described like a dirty little secret by its readers. I mean, look at that cover. Why wouldn't you think it's cute as a button, right? So, I've decided to read Tampa because its aura of mystery and perhaps also because I was a little curious about the novel featuring a female pedophile for protagonist. And it was a great read, to be honest. Sometimes terrifyingly nuanced and accurate. Sometimes wild as shit. A little uneven around the edges, but it did bring a smirk to my face more than once.
So yeah, the protagonist of Tampa is Celeste Price, a gorgeous-looking 26 years old middle school teacher who also happens to be a soulless sexual predator. She has a taste for slightly underdeveloped 14 years old boys only, which she believes to be harmless since she has her beauty to trade in exchange for sexual satisfaction. Why wouldn't young boys be eager to pleasure the most beautiful woman they'll ever get their hands on? Celeste chooses young Jack Patrick as the object of her fantasies on the first day of her teaching career and effortlessly seduces him. Everything is just like she fantasized about for so long until the day her devouring urges start catching up to her.
The elephant in the room in Tampa is Vladimir Nabokov's classic novel Lolita. Because these are the only two novels with pedophile protagonists that are considered acceptable readings. The former because it is written by a woman and the latter because Nabokov wrote several better novels that weren't about pedophilia at all. Tampa isn't a rewriting of Lolita, though. Alissa Nutting explores the pathology of her character in a completely different way than Nabokov's through themes like control. Celeste Price controls everything: Jack, her co-workers, her husband Ford, her own image, the only thing she can't control is her deviant urges which made her the way she is. There is this amazing scene in the beginning where she narrates her first intercourse with a teenager smaller than her in such a non-sexual language it makes her desire for control crystal clear to the audience.
I was slightly taller than Evan in a way that made me feel half-god to his mortal: every time we made out I had to bend down to reach his lips. Since he was smaller, he was on top, performing with the determined athleticism of a triple-crown jockey until his body was covered in sweat. Afterward I'd gone to the bathroom and then called him in; with an expression of melancholy curiosity, as though transfixed at an aquarium, he'd watched the ruins of my hymen drifting in the blue toilet bowl water like it was the last remaining survivor of a once-plentiful species.
Tampa is the story of two halves: the first feels frighteningly real in exploring the psychology of a sexual predator. The first person narration is a fascinating and very deliberate choice by Alissa Nutting. Beautiful people are usually the objects in literature, but Tampa is narrated by a beautiful person who objectifies everybody else, which is brilliant and terrifying. Makes you rethink beauty and youth The second half of Tampa is cartoonishly over-the-top and just out of key enough to feel enjoyable. Celeste loses control over her life when Jack's father Buck enters the portrait and from there, her terrifying control over the narrative also. In the ending paragraph of Tampa, Celeste is trying to regain it and becomes a terrifying human being again.
Beauty is control, but youth is an untamed beast you eventually have to let go. If you had to summarize what Tampa is about in a sentence it would probably be it. I've thoroughly enjoyed this unbridled stallion of a novel. There was a Palahniuk-esque aspect to it and perhaps shades of Megan Abbott too. More than anything, I loved reading a female character who had the freedom of being the villain of her own story. People have become so self-conscious about female characters in fiction, they pigeonhole them into these self-righteous damsels in distress and it felt wonderful to read Alissa Nutting shaking herself free of that. Tampa is wild and fearless. It get a little all over the place towards the ending, but it'll freak you out nonetheless. And I mean freaking you out in the best possible way.