Yesterday I quit reading Tampa by Alissa Nutting.
On the face of it, a story modeled after Debra Lafave’s affair with her 14-year-old student seemed like it would have been interesting enough to hold my attention. The literary blurbs and publisher’s preface also mentioned not only Lolita, but The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, all narratives that I’ve very much enjoyed for how they chronicle their protagonists’ misdeeds and eventual undoings.
Nutting also writes beautifully. Some reviewers have gone all foamy at the mouth at how amazing this is, given it’s her first novel. Evidently they didn’t take time to research the author because three minutes on Wikipedia revealed that Nutting has a Ph.D. in literature and has won several prestigious awards as well as served on the editorial boards of several literary magazines. So my view on the matter is that this author had damn well better have an outstanding first novel, in fact I wonder why hasn’t she published more than one novel and one collection of short stories? The lady’s spent most of her lifetime learning how to write.
Anyway, given that Tampa has been compared to tales I like, and is well-written, why did I put it down?
Well, for one thing it was pretty gross. This has as much to do with explicitness as with tone. Put adultery in highfalutin’ language and you’re catching up to Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Throw in some earthy lyricism into your story about lesbians coming of age and Rubyfruit Jungle is nigh. Childhood sexual abuse is horrific, however it is bearable when set in context of a teenager struggling to survive, as in the novel Push.
However, this is not how Tampa works. Lisa Zeidner of The Washington Post feels that one problem with the novel is its tone. Yes, there’s frankness, yes there is black humor, and yes, the marketing campaign is in some ways similar to one of my all-time favorite erotic novels: Vox by Nicholson Baker. And yet
[m]ost of the ample sex scenes . . . are not funny, titillating or particularly revealing. They provoke a reaction best captured by a word that the novel’s eighth graders often mouth: Eeewww.
That’s one problem. Even though I didn’t even get to any of the sex scenes, the novel just creeped me out. This despite the fact that I have finished many nas-tastical books in the name of exploring my desires. Pat Califia’s Macho Sluts and George Bataille’s Story of the Eye s are two books in particular that I forced myself to finish even though they were giving me nightmares.
So what made me put down this novel?
Ultimately, it was the main character: Celeste Price. The woman is a sociopath. Her mind is not a nice place to be. And unlike Tony Soprano with his desire to seek help or Walter White with his misguided love for his family, Price has no redeeming qualities. She does not tell us about her friends or family, or even memories that are not connected with sex in some way. Outside her monstrous obsession, Celeste doesn’t have any of the interests, or quirks or bad habits that put life into a character.
We’re never told why Price’s first sexual experience at age 14 came to be so deeply imprinted upon her psyche. There’s also no mention of caused how Price came to rationalize that acting on her desires was okay. The explanation that she’s a sociopath falls flat when there is no other evidence of Celeste hurting people in order to get her way. Furthermore, are we to believe that such an intelligent woman has never sought therapy or such a calculating woman has never preyed on minors, even when she still was one herself? None of this comes into play. It’s as if Celeste sprang, like some perverted Athena, from the mind of Alissa Nutting without a backstory. But for her desire, Celeste Price is a singularity, a mathematical point with a location in space and time, but no dimensions at all.
In addition to being boring, Price is unbearably judgemental. Pardon me for the abuse of italics but, her comments about the flaws of others are relentless. Yes, the history teacher might do more about her thinning hair and get rid of her handkerchief, but so what? If the middle aged women on her block are wide in the hips, or her husband enjoys smoking cigars on poker nights, why is that a big deal? Those are infinitesimally small failings next Price’s desire to knowingly rip the innocence from boys still far from adulthood.
As for this book being similar to Nabokov’s great work, I’m going to side with Sarah Churchwell of The Guardian who said:
Tampa resembles Lolita superficially at best: both are about compulsive paedophiles, but the similarity ends there. Humbert Humbert famously declares as Nabokov’s novel opens: “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns … O, my Lolita, I have only words to play with!” In the opening pages of Tampa, Celeste fantasises about whispering to a boy at a school dance: “I want to smell you come in your pants.” So much for playing with words.
So let this stand as a lesson: I need to start taking literary blurbs with larger grains of salt.