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Seduction lessons.

September 10, 2013

On the day that Alyssa Nutting’s controversial debut novel, Tampa, was unpacked from its box in one of the bookshops where I work, I caught sight of the title and thought, ‘aha! This must be a well-timed book about refugee tragedy’. (For anyone who doesn’t live in Australia, we’ve recently endured a particularly dispiriting federal election campaign; one of the main issues in the public eye was the plight of asylum seekers, triggering memories of 2001’s Tampa controversy).

Then I took a closer look at Tampa’s cover—a remarkably suggestive image of a pink button-hole at close range (seriously, who knew a button hole could scream ‘GENITALS’ so loudly?)—and my incredible deductive powers led me to conclude that this was definitely not a book about politics or refugees.

Twenty-six-year-old Celeste Price is an attractive high school teacher living in Tampa, Florida, with her square-jawed cop husband, Ford. When we first meet her, she admits to spending the night before starting her new job teaching eighth grade English at a local high school ‘in an excited loop of hushed masturbation’. Not, perhaps, the kind of night-before-nerves response you’d expect; but Celeste has a deep and disturbing sexual obsession with teenage boys, and that, it seems, is the sole motivating factor in her choice of career. Just as Nabokov’s Humbert could only be stirred by ‘nymphettes’, young adolescent girls teetering between childhood and adulthood, so Celeste is moved by the still-developing pubescent boy, the ‘last link of androgyny that puberty would permit … undeniably male but not man’.

Tampa is an unflinching, deliberately over-the-top look at the destructive capacity of misplaced desire; it’s also a surprisingly witty character study of a deeply unpleasant, yet strangely compelling, sexual predator. Celeste’s entire life is a carefully constructed facade designed to obscure her erotic proclivities from others—her fellow teachers, her charges’ parents, and Ford, whose sexual advances she finds so repulsive that she has to dose herself with drugs in order to endure them.

Celeste quickly sets her sights on Jack Patrick, a naive 14-year-old in one of her classes whose ‘lanky-limbed smoothness’ and frame that ‘shunned both fat and muscle’ is the embodiment of Celeste’s sexual tastes. It’s not long before she’s seduced him and provided him with a special mobile phone with which to contact her in order to minimise the risk of their affair being discovered. But, of course, things quickly become complicated; Jack is soon professing his love for Celeste and can hardly wait for them to make their relationship ‘public’ once he’s legal, but Celeste has no such long-term intentions. For her, the fling is purely physical, the satisfaction of an overwhelming need that seems to stalk her every thought and action. ‘One more year seemed to be the most realistic to hope for’, she reflects after several months of graphically described encounters in Jack’s house after school. ‘He’d grow, his voice would further deepen, defining muscle would thicken and broaden him. I couldn’t imagine being attracted to him beyond fifteen at the latest’.

Celeste is a narcissist, fixated with appearance and driven solely by her libido. Ironically, despite her meticulous planning and need to maintain control, she refers to her sexuality as a ‘deformed thing to be kept chained up in the attic’ and even expresses the wish that ‘my genitals were prosthetic, something I could slip out of’ due to their ‘constant drone of stimulation’.

But there’s no sense of remorse here—Celeste’s concern is always and only for herself. She’s driven not simply by her lust, but its apparent connection to enduring youthfulness. She’s obsessed with her own beauty in a way that goes far beyond pride at her toned limbs or pretty face; there’s a desperation to her sense of physical identity that’s reflected in her sexual appetite. Remembering compliments she’s received from staff at the plastic surgeon’s office she visits, she describes their smiles as ‘filled with sadistic delight’, their admiring words ‘no different from kicking me in the ribs and saying, Everything on you will one day sag’.

Tampa is an ugly book, and no doubt some readers will find its frequent sexually explicit scenes uncomfortable to read. But it’s also intelligent, bold, and very well written; Nutting treads a clever line between erotica and satire. She isn’t afraid to show us just how awful Celeste truly is, and her first-person narration shapes a character both abhorrent and poisonously funny. Celeste regards everyone around her with a mixture of contempt and indifference, reserving special disdain for those not blessed in the looks department; only the reader is privy to her running internal commentary of vitriol. Talking to her beleaguered colleague, the ageing and frumpy Janet, Celeste observes how ‘the charcoal frizz of [Janet’s] perm hovered above her scalp like a rising cloud of smog’ and notes that ‘when her head swivelled my way I could almost hear the grinding sound of a long-standing boulder being moved’. No character in Tampa is especially likeable or sympathetic—instead, they’re almost gleefully one-dimensional and exaggerated, but it works because they’re filtered to us through the Celeste’s sociopathic gaze.

Tampa isn’t a morality tale—Celeste is irredeemable, her sense of self wholly submerged in her constant craving for sexual release. There’s no sense of a lesson learned at the book’s end; it’s a glimpse into the mind of a narcissist, not a polemic against underage sex or a risqué erotic novel.

Nutting’s book, which was inspired by the real-life case of Debra Lafave, is supposedly intended to highlight the double standard apparent in how we regard (and punish) women who seek sexual relations with underage boys as opposed to men who do the same with underage girls (Lafave, for example, received three years of house arrest for her transgression; if she’d been a man, the punishment would likely have been far harsher).

Ironically, a different sort of double standard was revealed upon the book’s release: some Australian bookshops have refused to stock it (do they also refuse to sell Lolita?). These actions have probably boosted sales; they also expose worrying truths about how confronting we apparently continue to find female sexuality. Still, for all its difficult subject matter, Tampa is a horribly entertaining read.

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