With Operation Yewtree rewriting our memories of 1970s Saturday-evening entertainment, it’s been hard to open a newspaper recently without being assaulted by a barrage of paedophilia. Yet little, if any, has related to a female adult protagonist, which is what makes Tampa an intriguing prospect.
Alissa Nutting’s debut was inspired by the case of her former high-school peer, Debra Lafave. A Florida teacher, Lafave pleaded guilty in 2005 to a case of lewd or lascivious battery, after having sex with one of her 14-year-old students. Yet she didn’t go to prison because, her lawyer argued, she was too attractive, and to put her away would be, “like putting a piece of raw meat in with the lions”.
Celeste Price, Nutting’s anti-hero, is betting on the same argument to keep her out of jail. Only, she doesn’t expect ever to be apprehended, because she is cunning in her choice of lover: she goes for quiet boys, those who would be too afraid to say anything to their parents and who lack friends to show off to.
In an interview three years after her sentencing, Lafave attributed her behaviour to a bipolar disorder. Such disorders are known to relate to irrational mood swings, to hypersexuality and low impulse control – yet beyond a primitive acknowledgement of such psychoses in Celeste, Nutting fails to proffer a deeper examination of her character’s driving forces.
Instead, she focuses on satirising a society that prefers to look away, rather than accept that a beautiful woman could hide the darkness of a self-confessed “soulless pervert”. Which is fine as far as it goes – but that’s not terribly far.
In pre-publicity, Nutting made it clear that she wished to provide a contemporary Lolita, but rather than the poetry that makes Humbert Humbert so appallingly appealing, Celeste Price is merely vulgar: when not actively engaging in sex acts with her underage victims – which she often is, in great detail – she is masturbating while dreaming of them or having sex with appropriate adults in order to cover up her indiscretions. Such is her lack of emotional cognisance, she might as well be a robot switched to “rabbit” setting.
The banality of Celeste’s language is surely intended to reflect her sociopathy, but it starts to pall as we wait – and wait – for a broader moral point to be made. When it does arrive, it is too late and far too limited in scope to make the mass of explicit, brazen horror that precedes it worth trawling through.
It is a shame, given the currency of the subject matter, but while Tampa aims to be disquietingly controversial; in the end, it is just disappointingly crude. As empty as its protagonist, the novel is stuck in her superficial worldview and lacks the gravitas or literary panache to pull us out of it.