The buttonhole of a pale pink shirt. It sounds innocuous enough, except once you’ve seen the cover of Alison Nutting’s Tampa, the innocence of buttonholes is history. Writer John Niven’s blurb for Nutting’s debut novel declares, “We had to wait half a century for a female Humbert. It was worth it.”
Between the buttonhole and the summoning of one of literature’s best-known perverts, there’s not much mystery about what happens in Tampa. The significant difference is that while Humbert Humbert is a middle-aged man, Tampa’s Celeste Price is a beautiful, young woman. And, on a non-literary note, Lolita costs Rs 350 while Tampa is precisely double (ok, double minus one at Rs 699).
Celeste is 26, married to a police officer and a teacher in the local school. But for the fact that Celeste lusts after her 14-year-old male students, Celeste seems to embody the American dream. The buttonhole cover is chillingly fitting for Celeste’s story because so much of her life is made up of actions that seem innocent but are actually elements of a meticulous strategy to prey upon boys. Even while she’s seducing one, she’s preparing herself to abandon him (once he loses his boyish aura) and find her next victim.
Tampa is not a love story. It’s a portrait of a sexual predator, inspired by a real woman. In 2006, 24-year-old teacher, Debra LaFave, admitted to sexual relations with one of her male students, aged 14. Despite a precedence of strict sentences against alleged sex offenders, charges against LaFave were dropped. Her lawyer argued,
“To place Debbie into a Florida state penitentiary, to place an attractive young woman into that kind of a hellhole, is like putting a piece of raw meat in with the lions.”
Much of Tampa, from where Celeste and her underage lover Jack have sex to Celeste’s lawyer’s argument, are taken from this real life episode. But there’s someone else that Celeste is vaguely reminiscent of when she waxes eloquent about the aesthetic beauty of teenagers shedding their boyhood: Germaine Greer. In The Beautiful Boy, Greer put forward her proposition that there was “complex and civilised pleasure” to be had in seeing – only seeing, mind you; not acting upon them – boys on the cusp adolescence and manhood. This is Celeste describing Jack:
“It was at the very last link of androgyny that puberty would permit him: undeniably male, but not man. I loved the lanky-limbed smoothness, the plasticity of his limbs, the way his frame shunned both fat and muscle. It had not yet been wrestled into a fixed shape.”
Frequently in her sexually-charged daydreams, Celeste observes how fleeting this attractive period is for the male form. The moment the voices break another notch, the body hair becomes more pronounced and manliness is imprinted upon them, Celeste can’t abide her lovers.
Greer, ever thrilled to shock people, voices something similar in her essay in The Beautiful Boy:
“A boy is only a boy for a very brief space. He has to be old enough to be capable of sexual response but not yet old enough to shave. This window of opportunity is not only narrow, it is mostly illegal. The male human is beautiful when his cheeks are still smooth, his body hairless, his head full-maned, his eyes clear, his manner shy and his belly flat.”
Greer says that the “guilty panic” of ogling at androgynous, male adolescents is a recent development in human history. To give the agent provocateur her due, she isn’t suggesting people go about pouncing on the nearest, scrawny boy and indulge in a variety of sexual acts, as Celeste does. However, what Celeste and Greer do have in common is a disturbing delight at the idea of a sexual partner who is submissive, vulnerable and malleable as well as discarded. It’s chilling because male chauvinism has been roundly attacked for trying to force women into this very mould, though Nutting is definitely not condoning Celeste’s way of thinking. In Tampa, she’s very much an anti-heroine, rapacious in her sexuality the way so many male characters in literature – heroes and villains – are, and busting popular myths about female desire.
Since so much of Tampa is based on real people and incidents, it’s not too dissonant to bring in a non-fiction perspective. Daniel Bergner’s What Do Women Want has a similar aim to Nutting’s – dismantling popular stereotypes about feminine sexuality. What Do Women Want presents the reader with scientific research that destroys the idea that women are wired to vary between passive and asexual. Data suggests instead that women are sexually omnivorous – pretty much anything can turn them on – and the sexual urge is not a man’s prerogative.
Put simply, biologically speaking, women love having sex; culturally speaking they’ve been taught over generations to either suppress or hide this urge. Using research findings as well as case studies, Bergner is able to present a portrait of feminine sexuality that is complicated, voracious, misunderstood, but not deviant.
Celeste, on the other hand, becomes a diabolical character in Tampa, in a way continuing the long-standing tradition of demonising the sexual woman. In the early chapters, when Celeste is laying the trap for Jack, there are a few sharply-observed paragraphs that serve to establish her sexual obsession within a wider, socio-economic context. The culture nurtured by consumerism, the hankering for youth that the beauty industry fans into a frenzy, society’s expectation that women will exist behind façades – all these contribute to pushing Celeste past the boundaries that Greer respects in The Beautiful Boy.
Unfortunately, Celeste loses much of this complexity once she snares Jack and Tampa gets stuck in a graphic rut in the middle of the book. Nutting does her best to describe Celeste and Jack’s sexual escapades with literary flair, but in this case, the chase is definitely more satisfying than the kill. More problematically, Tampa quickly loses nuance and complexity in these chapters. Initially, the school where Celeste works is a fascinating site of misunderstandings, menace and possibilities. Lessons take on an erotic charge; the fear of being discovered keeps Celeste (and the reader) on her toes; bothersome but clueless colleagues get in Celeste’s way. But once Celeste has Jack between her legs, school fades into the background. When we meet Jack, he is naïve and enthralled by Celeste; by the end of the book, he’s still naïve and enthralled by Celeste.
Celeste’s unhappy marriage, which earned its social sanction by carefully constructing a veneer to obscure the apathy and misery of both husband and wife turns flat and abusive. Her husband becomes a caricature of a cuckold – dull, cartoonish in his emotional responses, and flat. In fact, all the men in Tampa are highly-sexed idiots who don’t notice how much their partners hate them, which explains Celeste’s contempt for them but it doesn’t help make Tampa a more interesting or engaging story.
In Lolita, what kept us riveted to Humbert’s story was Nabokov’s use of the English language. The opening lines of Lolita are among the most famous and oft-quoted examples of crafting eroticism out of innocuous, ungraphic words.
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
Throughout the novel, when Humbert is talking, the words and phrases are so magnificently crafted that you keep reading in anticipation of the next turn of phrase. It’s a different kind of seduction, by the author of the reader; carefully calibrated to make you catch your breath and linger in your memory.
“I recall certain moments, let us call them icebergs in paradise, when after having had my fill of her – after fabulous, insane exertions that left me limp and azure-barred – I would gather her in my arms with, at last, a mute moan of human tenderness (her skin glistening in the neon light coming from the paved court through the slits in the blind, her soot-black lashes matted, her grave gray eyes more vacant than ever – for all the world a little patient still in the confusion of a drug after a major operation) – and the tenderness would deepen to shame and despair, and I would lull and rock my lone light Lolita in my marble arms, and moan in her warm hair, and caress her at random and mutely ask her blessing, and at the peak of this human agonized selfless tenderness (with my soul actually hanging around her naked body and ready to repent), all at once, ironically, horribly, lust would swell again – and ‘oh, no,’ Lolita would say with a sigh to heaven, and the next moment the tenderness and the azure – all would be shattered.”
It’s unreasonable, perhaps, to expect a debutant author to be able to match Nabokov’s prose, the fact remains that for all the graphic imagery in Tampa there are no intimate moments like the one from Lolita that has been quoted above, suffused with both sickening abuse and exquisite turns of phrase. The “female Humbert” suffers because her storyteller decided to focus on foreplay rather than wordplay.
In the world of fiction, Celeste isn’t a lone figure. She belongs to a sorority of women with a weakness for naïve boys: the Snow Queen, Mrs Robinson from The Graduate, Nazneen from Brick Lane, Sheba from Notes On A Scandal, to name a few members. Celeste stands out because her deviance goes unpunished, while most of her tribe is made to suffer for their desires even if the author is sympathetic and provides a compelling set of circumstances that effectively push the woman to behave as a sexual transgressor. Mirroring LaFave’s story, Celeste gets away with her crimes, suffering only a light rap on her knuckles.
The end of Tampa is supposed to be a comment on contemporary society in America and its confused callousness and its unwavering adoration of youthful beauty. However, because the novel is seen only from Celeste’s point of view and described with the contempt that she feels for those around her, everyone seems just a shade caricaturish, making the world of the novel seem familiar but unreal. Tampa exists in its own warp, peopled by fools, victims and predators.
Still, for all its flaws, Tampa isn’t without its charms and Celeste prowling the school and picture-perfect neighbourhoods for prey makes for compelling reading. Even though there isn’t any obvious finger-wagging or censure, within a few paragraphs, Nutting establishes Celeste as a protagonist that makes your skin crawl, even as her wit and candor both shock and amuse. It’s because Nutting sets the scene so well that the expectations are raised. Unfortunately, the novel weakens as it progresses and the climax, which includes blood spatter, nudity and a knife, is positively ludicrous. Considering Nutting’s command over her storytelling, she probably intended it to be so, but the black horror-comedy of the climax makes the absurdity of how the legal system responds to Celeste anti climactic.
Still, how wonderful to see women characters in fiction who aren’t straitjacketed by all our real life concerns of setting good examples. This burden of representing their gender is a weight that male characters, good or bad, rarely have to carry. No one figured all men are paedophiles because of Humbert, for instance. Whether or not the reader expects her to be representative of all women, Celeste’s efforts are to stand out as different from other women; not as one of them. She’s no everywoman and she’s not a ‘type’. Celeste Price is a sexual predator, and as distasteful as she might be, she’s also the star of Nutting’s novel.
Tampa, Alissa Nutting, Faber & Faber/Penguin India, Rs 699