Review - Notorious novel is scandalously bad
I worry about saying how much I dislike Tampa, the new novel about a 26-year-old female teacher grooming and abusing a 14-year-old boy.
Within days of its publication, the book has already become notorious. Its author, Alissa Nutting, has spoken about how she was inspired by the case of 24-year-old Debra Lafave, a Florida teacher who, in 2005, was prosecuted for having sex with a 14-year-old student. She was convicted but escaped a jail sentence.
Nutting says that she wanted to explore the assumptions that this was a lesser crime than equivalent abuse by a male teacher, and that any teenage boy would be overjoyed to have sex with an attractive teacher.
She therefore set out to make Tampa as explicit as possible: she wanted to show exactly what a teacher-predator might be doing to a teenage boy.
To say that you dislike Tampa, therefore, is to open yourself to accusations of prudishness, or of wanting to sweep the more troubling extremes of sexuality (and, particularly, female sexuality) under the carpet.
But I do not dislike Tampa because I am a prude. I think its subject matter is important, and exploring it properly through fiction could be an extremely valuable exercise. I dislike Tampa because it is an excruciatingly bad book.
Its prose is at once lumpen and breathless: "My whole body yearned with the tincture of possibility", for example, or "I turned the car engine on so the air-conditioning could blow its well-intentioned breaths."
That alone would be forgivable if there were a gripping plot or well-drawn characters. Instead, we have 26-year-old Celeste Price, who has trained to be a teacher purely so that she can have ready access to 14-year-old boys.
The night before she begins her new job, she masturbates furiously. Earlier, she had walked into her empty classroom and rubbed herself over her new desk, "reaching up my dress to the clear ink pad between my legs ... and writing (students') names upon the desks".
She is a ridiculous cartoon: a cocktail of pure evil and hopeless self-absorption. She is either thinking about sex or doing it, eventually with 14-year-old Jack, whom she persuades to have what he thinks is a consensual affair.
Celeste is essentially a psychopath: she demonstrates no empathy whatsoever and we are subjected to her unremitting disdain for all of adult humanity. At the climax (sorry: irresistible), she coldly watches Jack's father die, convinced that this is the only way to save herself from jail. Her only regret is that Jack starts "sulking" afterwards.
How much more interesting would Tampa have been if, instead of opting for caricature and melodrama, it had quietly examined the psychology of abuse? We could have watched Celeste persuade herself that she was doing nothing wrong and that Jack was unnaturally mature for his age. We could have witnessed the fallout as Jack realises that he has mistaken abuse for love.
Instead, there is an endless litany of sexual positions, presumably designed to shock and titillate. "Aha!" Nutting appears to be saying. "You, the reader, are turned on by this. Do you see how you're tacitly condoning paedophilia?"
To which I would say: this book has certainly raised some uncomfortable questions (an open-nipple bra? Is that a thing? And doesn't it chafe?). But it also reinforces the prevalent view of highly sexualised women as soulless predators, and highlights the fact that we would far rather default to titillation than risk discussion about paedophiles as damaged human beings.
Controversial? Not at all. Tampa is, in fact, tediously conventional.
Tampa by Alissa Nutting is published by HarperCollins.