Friday, August 2, 2013

Review of "Tampa" by Alissa Nutting

Tampa has generated a lot of chatter for its adept handling of a controversial subject—the seduction of a eighth grade boy by his extremely attractive but unfortunately sociopathic English teacher. As someone who adored Nutting's collection Unclean Stories for Women and Girls, and, I'll be honest, as someone who mildly idolizes the pixie of a woman behind these two literary accomplishments, I highly anticipated this book, and it didn't disappoint.

I never picked it up without reading several chapters and I got through the whole thing in two days, which is my equivalent of reading it in one sitting (considering how many novels-in-progress slump quietly throughout my apartment). It’s hard to say whether it was an enjoyable read, exactly. More of a squirmy, dark, disturbing read. Celeste’s sense of humor is sharp but cruel, and there is not a single character in the book you can unreservedly champion. But was it compelling? Certainly.

I was curious to see how deep into depravity Nutting might delve—she strongly discouraged her parents from cracking the cover. My conservative, religious parents are likewise certain to be traumatized by the descriptions within. But for a book that goes into such vivid detail describing both the sensual and the grotesque, it never felt gratuitous. You’ll find more darkness in the realm of the psychological than the sexual. Consider this passage as Celeste prepares for an unpleasant sexual encounter with the father of one of her conquests:

“Your wish is my command,” he whispered. I felt a gagging tug at the back of my throat but managed to swallow it down with a quiet burp. He quickly fumbled off his shirt and pants, each sound a tortuous reminder that we hadn’t even started yet. There was a small slapping sound of hand on skin, the equivalent of Buck having to prime gasoline into a lawn mower engine by pulling the cord a few times, then finally, with relief and a bit of pride, he kneeled down behind me on the carpet and said, “Okay. I’m hard for you.”

Disturbing? Gross? Yes. Gratuitous? No.

I was also curious to see what notions of morality might surface. How would Nutting portray a predatory female without contributing to the demonization of feminine sexual assertiveness? Well, I can't say with certainty that it won't do that--people hear what they want to hear, and read what they want to read. But the book consistently refuses to belabor any particular morality—Celeste's worldview dominates, obscuring Nutting's almost entirely. In fact, I hardly reflected at all on the underlying moral questions until I began to try and write about the experience.

One question that subtly rises on reflection: What makes a monster? Celeste’s ritualistic preparations for her students’ arrival are as visceral and sinister as casting of webs. Is a monster something bent on fear and destruction? Her single-minded obsession and lack of scruples make her function on this planet simple as a vampire’s or a werewolf’s; she is a predator, a special breed of siren drawn to the newly adolescent.

Somehow, despite Celeste’s utter callousness towards anything that isn’t beautiful and young, despite her lack of feelings for the people in her life, I found myself quite frequently sympathizing with her, casting for explanations, and agreeing with her assessments of her surroundings.

Celeste Price is clearly a product of this society. America herself is youth- and beauty-obsessed and cruel or indifferent towards age and non-compliance to certain standards of appearance. Like Celeste, modern American society views human beings as commodities to be coldly assessed and then approved or discarded. Her marriage is a straightforward exchange of commodities, a “harmonious arrangement of my needing money and Ford’s needing a stunning wife,” and this shallow situation is nothing shocking to any of us; why then should it be shocking that our protagonist would use and discard her students in a similar way?

And then there’s the fact that minors are not just a fun deviance for Celeste; she has an unrelenting sexual appetite, and sex with adult males isn’t just unsatisfactory—it literally nauseates her. It’s easy to forget how attractive her husband is supposed to be (“needlessly” sexy, according to Celeste’s friends), he repulses her so.

And finally, she treats herself exactly the same way as she treats others. Her alarming habit of drugging her husband to get out of sleeping with him has its parallel in her self-doping prior to the occasional inevitable sex with him.

Some of the most successful literary villains, like Satan of Paradise Lost and of course Lolita’s Humbert Humbert, are brilliant because they get us accidentally siding with them, rooting for them, and this causes us to question our own values and assumptions as a result. How similar am I to the monster within these pages? we wonder. Am I different enough? Am I different in the right ways?

I emerged from Tampa disoriented, my world slightly askew. As a non-believer in evil, I don’t think Celeste Price is, though she’s certainly ill. Ultimately it comes down to consent and ultimate harm. It is undeniable that her main victim, Jack, is irrevocably harmed through her actions, but her other primary victim, Boyd, offers an interesting juxtaposition to this easy answer, as he seems to come out of the experience happy and unscathed, crowing with pride about the experience. Is he still a victim? Had he been her only victim, would Celeste’s exoneration be justified?

But what really got to me, more than anything else, was the theme of casual commodification. For Celeste, as for corporate America, the value of an individual lies entirely in their visual appeal, immediate usefulness, and/or spending ability. It’s a cold and cutthroat world, empty of meaningful connections, and it’s easy to see the degree to which this mindset has already conquered our culture and national values.
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