The controversy around Alissa Nutting’s new book, Tampa, suggests two possible interpretations: The novel, about a beautiful, 26-year-old sexual predator, could be Fifty Shades-style pop-erotica, a dark titillation bound up in Internet-innuendo, or it could be satirical social commentary, a Lolita do-over with American Psycho aspirations, about the particularities of female monstrosity.
The first is why it will sell, and the second is apparently what the author wants the book to be.
It’s neither, fully. Tampa is instead dominated by Gone Girl’s brand of beige noir, with little of Vladimir Nabokov’s artistry and none of Bret Easton Ellis’s self-satisfied minimalism. Nutting, a writer who is much better than this book, seems willing to core the “hot-for-teacher” apple, but does it with the dull edge of the knife.
Tampa was inspired by the real-life Debra Lafave, a Barbie-style bombshell Florida teacher sentenced to three years of house arrest and seven years of probation in 2005 after having sex with a 14-year-old student and being charged with lewd and lascivious battery; Nutting went to high school with her. There is a tight nexus of “women,” “power,” “sex” and “crime” coiled like a snake in this subject and story, which should be obvious to anyone paying attention, and is to Nutting, who has done a series of smart interviews leading up to the book’s release. When confirmed sex offenders are also good-looking female teachers who target male students, they are typically recast as desire-avatars, only vaguely outré and morally preferable to, say, porn stars or prostitutes in the collective consciousness.
Lafave did a cotton-soft interview with Matt Lauer in 2006, not only about her crime but also about mental illness and her modelling days. Mary Kay Letourneau, probably the most famous of these women, was arrested in 1997 and sentenced to seven years for the second-degree child rape of student Vili Fualaau; she has been married to Fualaau since 2005, and their first anniversary was celebrated in People magazine with an interview and photo spread of cuddly family life.
The public response – winking, forgiving, approving – to their crimes is an acute example of the sexual double standard for men and women, and boys and girls. It confirms how the potential of female sexuality and psychology is grossly misunderstood, and what the culture still expects of and from young boys, even when they’re plainly victims.
Like Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, Celeste Price is an attractive, privileged, obsessive sociopath; she is married to an unsuspecting cop with family money. Like the other adults in the book, he is less a character than a cardboard cut-out blocking Celeste’s way into the sport-shorts of her students, and at 31 he is “seventeen years past [her] window of sexual interest.”
Like Lolita, this novel is meta-fiction, but of the most contemporary (and, I think, the most cynical) kind, anticipatorily responding to the inevitable criticism and misrepresentations that follow any writing about sex, women and serious transgression, instead of just committing to a decision about what the novel needs to be, apart from how it might be received. Nutting is an excellent, lively stylist, but it doesn’t feel like she made that decision, or like she trusts her readers – or message-board commenters and tweeters, I guess – to discern the ethics of the subject. Considering the buzz, maybe she shouldn’t.
Lolita was, of course, banned, but it’s also dynamic, nuanced, atmospheric (and, to be fair, one of the best novels ever written, and in English, by a Russian).
Read as safe-ish “satire,” the writing in Tampa is formal and grandiloquent, more like a ghost story than a complicated first-person narrative. (Tampa itself – and Florida generally, ready-made for evocation with thick sleaze – is weirdly absent.)
The scenes of sex with students are graphic and efficient, tonally disparate from the rest of the novel; they’re definitely and thankfully not intended to be sexy.
The most intense, brutal passages are when Celeste is by herself, imagining or enduring sex with her husband or her student prey’s father, in one of many Lolita inversions, while the implications of what happens to the boys, the psychological and emotional violence, is largely superficial.
In this sense, Tampa is “explicit” in only one way: Instead of getting uncomfortably, usefully close to the kind of criminal and crime that our culture doesn’t totally understand, or even accept as such, the story is badly spent on a guiltless sociopath, with her binoculars, classroom masturbation and back-seat sex. This should be a book with many sharp teeth, not a hedge against another cable-TV-style apologia for the archetypal female sex offender that is dismissive of the real violence being perpetrated. Tampa is a trap door out of this story, but it opens into a well.
Kate Carraway is a columnist and writer based in Toronto.