29 August 2013

Guest Writer Lisa Barstow On Controversial Novel Tampa by Alissa Nutting

Readers and book-lovers will no doubt have heard about the controversial new book Tampa, by Alissa Nutting.  I won't be reading it based on the plot, however it gives me great pleasure to introduce guest writer Lisa Barstow who will share her perspective on this provocative book with Carpe Librum readers.

Tampa by author Alissa Nutting
Many books generate controversy, or feature sexual content, but Alissa Nutting's novel Tampa has managed to eclipse even the infamous Fifty Shades of Grey, both in terms of the amount of explicit material and the level of media coverage that is has generated.

What's It All About?
Tampa by Alissa Nutting book coverThe reason Tampa has been so controversial is that it focuses on the relationship between a 26-year-old teacher and her 14-year-old pupil. Over the course of the novel, the main character, Celeste Price, targets a boy in her English class, Jack, and begins a relationship with him that is described in excruciatingly explicit detail. It is clear from the outset that Celeste's intentions are far from educational, when she begins her new job at a school in Tampa, Florida. To the community, she appears to be an attractive, happily married woman, just the sort of person who can be trusted to teach their children, but in reality, Celeste is a manipulative, obsessive predator who became a teacher just in order to gain access to teenage boys. Every action she takes in the book is driven by her desires, or by the need to present a respectable face to the community. Towards the end of the book, Celeste's relationship with Jack is exposed, leading to much shock and confusion in the community, but most of the book focuses on the relationship itself, and the majority of this relationship is about sex. Nutting writes explicitly about Celeste's sexual fantasies, which she seems to have constantly, when she is not actually having sex with Jack, or with the adult partners she finds so repulsive.

The Inspiration
Nutting was inspired by the real life case of a teacher in Florida, a woman with whom she had been at school, and who was later convicted of sexually abusing a 14-year-old boy. The disparity between the media coverage of that case and the responses to similar situations in which the perpetrator was a male teacher was truly shocking, and questioning why there is this division in the perceptions of male and female sexuality is surely a worthwhile venture. 

Literary Aspirations
The subject matter of this novel has invited many comparisons to Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, but though Tampa appears at first glance to be a reversal of the gender roles in Lolita, the two books actually have very little in common beyond this. Nabokov's protagonist is far more eloquent, and his mind goes beyond an obsession with sex. His eloquence is a warning to the reader of the danger of falling for the words of a smooth talker. The flat, uninspiring language of Nutting's Celeste might be seen as a similar warning, this time of the banality of crime, but it leaves little for the reader beyond the sexual imagery. Celeste is clearly a sociopath who is incapable of caring about the consequences of her actions, but this means that none of the characters we are introduced to from her perspective can be fully formed. Jack, in particular, remains a bland and superficial character, but Nutting does not spend much time on exploring any of her character's psychologies. It is the response of the community to the revelation of her true nature that is important. It is just a pity that the author didn't skip to this part of the book rather than forcing her readers to endure all of Celeste's longings and seductions.

Given the plot-line at the centre of this novel, it is hardly surprising that Tampa has generated a lot of controversy, with some bookshops refusing to stock it. It is the quantity of explicit sexual content that has been particularly controversial, and it is also what makes this book a poor substitute for Lolita. The quality of the writing is nowhere near Nabokov's work. Tampa verges on the pornographic rather than the literary. It does not contribute anything to the understanding of what good writing is and what it can do to help us deal with important issues. The focus on detailed descriptions of Celeste's sex life and fantasies prevents sufficient development of the characters or exploration of the double standard that applies to male and female sexuality and abuse. The problem with this book is not that it deals with a controversial topic, but rather that it relies on this controversy too much. The graphic level of detail also makes it appear that the intention is not to critique media coverage of these types of cases, but rather to use the way the media responds to them to fuel its own publicity and boost sales. This is a book that is trying to shock us, not to make us think.
The media reviews of this book prepared me to expect a certain level of explicit content, but I found that the focus on the main character's fantasies and desires was still more pervasive than I thought it would be. It appears that Celeste cares about nothing else. I found it somewhat unbelievable that such an obsessive personality would have been able to graduate college let alone hold down a job. Celeste is a horrific character, but having an unlikeable protagonist is no reason not to like a book. The problem, for me, was not that Celeste was a nasty person, but rather than I could not believe in her as person at all.

The central idea in the book, that female predators are often treated differently than male ones, seems interesting enough to produce a challenging and important book, but Tampa is not that book. Unfortunately, the author has spent too much time trying to titillate readers and court controversy, and not enough on exploring the issues. A better challenge to Lolita might be Emily Maguire's Taming the Beast, which is told from the perspective of the female student who has been seduced by her male teacher, and does not shy away from the long lasting consequences of this abuse.

Rating = * (and only because I think this is an issue that is worth exploring)

Thank you so much for your insights Lisa, and for being a guest writer on Carpe Librum.  If you enjoyed this article, have read the book or have an opinion on the controversy, please leave a comment below.

Would you like to comment?

  1. Reading this makes one consider whether or not you really want to know what's on the mind of people you know, or think you know. Monsters can hide right in front of you, and you want to kick yourself for not seeing them.

  2. I completely agree with you, it's scary isn't it?

    Thanks for dropping by.


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