Pedophilia is the subject of Alissa Nutting’s debut novel “Tampa,” and when pedophilia is the subject, novelists have been known to hedge their bets in their choices of speakers, lest the speaker be conflated with the writer. Vladimir Nabokov famously chose an unreliable narrator — a murderer with a fancy prose style — and filled the pages of “Lolita” with literary gamesmanship elaborate enough that readers have ever since argued about what it means and how it might best be read and understood. In more recent novels, Tom Perrotta (“Little Children”) and Russell Banks (“Lost Memory of Skin”) dropped their sex offenders into ensemble dramas, where they could be studied and contextualized among other characters, at the relatively safer distance offered by third-person narrators who can get inside the head of the perpetrator (in Banks’s novel, a borderline case anyway) without being the perpetrator.
Alissa Nutting, bravely, has allowed herself no such armor. The protagonist of “Tampa” is Celeste Price, a 26-year-old who has sought out a job teaching eighth grade English with the sole motivation of seducing her adolescent male students. Her story is delivered in her voice and her voice alone, in a coldly unrepentant first person, without any moralizing or authorial intervention.
Much has been made of the resonances between the fictional story of Celeste Price and the nonfictional story of Nutting’s high school classmate, Debra Lafave, the 23-year-old Temple Terrace, Florida, middle school teacher who pled guilty in 2005 to two felonies stemming from sexual encounters with a 14-year-old male student.
But it is difficult to imagine that Price and Lafave could be confused by a sophisticated reader of the book. Nutting’s protagonist is a sociopath of the highest order, and her way of thinking sometimes drifts out of the complications and rationalizations that usually pass for verisimilitude, and into a kind of monstrous and singular appetite that often attaches itself to language very close in spirit to, say, “Penthouse Letters.”
This inclination announces itself early in a set of rituals Price performs while preparing her classroom for the arrival of her students. To give one example:
“Though I didn’t yet know which of my male eighth grade English students would be my favorites, I guessed based on name and performed a small act of voodoo, reaching up my dress to the clear inkpad between my legs, wetting my fingertip and writing their names upon the desks in the front row, hoping by some magic they’d be conjured directly to those seats, their hormones reading the invisible script their eyes couldn’t see. I played with myself behind the desk until I was sore, the chair moistened, hoping the air had been painted with pheromones that would tell the right pupils everything I wasn’t allowed to verbalize. Straddling over the desk’s edge . . .”
You get the idea.
But the porny language isn’t appropriated unthinkingly, or solely to titillate. This isn’t a pedophiliac “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Instead, Nutting is up to two rather sophisticated things. “Tampa” is a satire, and like the best of satires, it has a deadly seriousness at its center. The default mindset of contemporary American culture goes like this: When we think of pedophiles, we think of men, and when we think of beautiful women having sex with adolescent boys, the cultural norm might be to think: way to go, buddy! So Nutting pushes the interior life of her narrator past the point at which the reader might sympathize. Her great and exaggerated cold want makes it all but impossible to avoid seeing the ugliness and exploitation at its center.
At the same time, because Nutting is so good at writing the sexual stuff in a titillating manner, the reader must reckon with the possibility that reading about this particular variety of predation is at the same time turning the reader on — a thing that seems less likely for readers of all genders and sexual orientations if the story were following, instead, the sexual exploitation of an adolescent girl by an adult man.
The whole approach seems calculated to cause many readers to self-implicate. The crime may be more or less the same kind of crime, but reverse the genders and revulsion might turn toward excitement.
This is the prurience that was at the center of the media fascination with the Debra Lafave case, and with many other female teacher-male student cases before and since. Why is it that the two narratives don’t line up, and what does it say about gender, about power about how men and women are differently considered and valued, and what are the broader consequences for American society?
Nutting’s greatest achievement, in “Tampa,” might be the way she so adroitly raises the questions, then leaves it to the reader, or the listener, to do the hard work of considering what we might do about the hard answers that follow.