Wednesday 7 August 2013

Alissa Nutting's Tampa

Here's an extended blog on Tampa, the debut novel by Alissa Nutting. Contains language.

Time was when Faber and Faber published volumes with bold modernist dust jackets designed by Berthold Wolpe and featuring his elegant Albertus typeface - think of Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet, of Eliot's Complete Poems and Plays, Ezra Pound's Cantos and Golding's Pincher Martin. They were serious books written by, and read by, serious people. That was then and times have changed. 

The striking front cover of Tampa, published by Faber in Britain this month, depicts the empty buttonhole of a shirt resembling a shaved - or possibly pre-pubescent - vagina, slightly dilated, apparently in a state of arousal. This entirely misleads the punter because the protagonist is a 26-year-old female teacher and her victim a fourteen-year-old boy. Perhaps Faber's directors balked at the prospect of a hairless scrotum looming over their colophon.

Chick-lit chick slit © Faber and Faber

Tampa's blurb promises "body-slamming encounters in Celeste's empty classroom between periods" (presumably not menstrual cycles, so stop sniggering), and there's a back-cover encomium from none other than Viv Albertine, front woman of the feminist post-punk band The Slits, which is worth setting out in full: 

Tampa charms and seduces you into the mind of its remorseless female protagonist then twists the knife by skating uncomfortably close to your own inner darkness. Lock up your sons.

The seductive knife-wielding skater Nutting is an assistant professor of creative writing at John Carroll University, a private, co-educational Jesuit institution in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. It is (according to their website) "a place of intellectual honesty, pluralism and mutual respect". That the Catholic church in general and the Society of Jesus in particular does not feature in this lurid account of systematic physical and sexual child abuse suggests that the author has kept one eye on her day job. (The Wikipedia entry on child abuse by Jesuits is here and makes for grim reading.) If this nasty and disgraceful novel has any particular significance it is because it overturns one long-established credo - that you can't tell a book by its cover.

Dust jacket aside (and I suppose we really shouldn't blame the author for that) it's difficult to know how best to review what the publishers insist is "a grand, satirical, serio-comic examination of desire and a scorching literary debut" when it really is nothing of the kind. The unique selling-point - a female perpetrator - is a threadbare attraction. You can take your pick: The End of Alice (1996) by A. M. Homes described a 19-year-old woman's attempt to seduce a 12-year-old-boy; ten years ago we had Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal (teacher seduces her pupil); two years later came Emily Maguire's Taming the Beast (male teacher 38, girl 14). Kia Abdullah's grotesque Child's Play (2009) was a further if negligible contribution to a genre that has, since Nabokov's peerless Lolita, been downwardly-mobile. (Abdullah is today remembered, if at all, for quite another reason.)

Add all these and similar novels to a stream of miserabilist childhood abuse memoirs and journalistic exposures of 1970s pop stars and telly presenters and you've got some stiff competition when it comes to writing and publishing books about sex with children. How can new authors make themselves heard above the hubbub? How can they make their mark? How can they make a buck?

Nutting's novel was prompted (though hardly 'inspired') by the case of a woman called Debra Lafave, a Florida teacher who pleaded guilty in 2005 to having sex with a 14-year-old boy. The author had been at  school with Lafave and was apparently alarmed at the way media coverage focussed on the fact she was an "attractive blonde', implying that her child victim had been lucky rather than criminally abused. Nutting is quite right to say that if the tables were turned those comments would be extremely shocking, and that there's an undertow of chortling envy - not least in the media  - attending any pubertal lad fortunate enough to shag - or be shagged by - his nubile schoolmarm. There may be a novel in this - but this isn't that novel. Nubility, not sexual pathology, is what counts in Nutting's treatment - if the perpetrator had been a raddled old brunette a whole different aesthetic would have come into play and quite possibly not have made a blip on the author's radar. 

When it comes to writing about the sexual allure of minors there's always a place for accomplishment - Nabokov and Thomas Mann come immediately to mind. There is a lengthy tradition, not only in literature, of what was once tolerantly termed hebephilia - an admiration, not always translated into action, for youthful male beauty. We are less tolerant today, and Germaine Greer's blameless The Beautiful Boy (2003), which aimed 'to advance women's reclamation of their capacity for and right to visual pleasure' was heavily criticised for all the usual reasons.  

Tampa comes much further down the ladder than Lolita and Death in Venice and even The Beautiful Boy. It's one shaky rung above self-published erotic fiction,  although Nutting's writing would barely pass muster even in that debased context. The author and her publishers optimistically imagine that the book raises important questions surrounding the whole subject of sex with children (of course, or else why publish?) but there's no room for that sort of reflection because what happens, all that happens, is sex.  When Celeste isn't molesting Jack she thinks constantly about intercourse, or masturbates, or has unenjoyable shags with nasty adult men. Nutting may aim to satirise such a self-absorbed pathology, but does no more than report it and - unwittingly one hopes - endorse it. The problem is not that she's equivocal about the issue - although she mostly is - but that whatever point she is trying to make, her skills as a writer are not up to the task. There is little in the book apart from endless bouts of illegal sex, ineptly described.

I shan't bother to argue that there is something dodgy about the depiction of sexual acts that, if circulated in other media and especially online, would be subject to prosecution. Agatha Christie offers her readers no end of murderous tips but we wouldn't think of banning Death on the Nile; so why even consider for a moment banning Tampa, packed though it is with practical accounts of grooming and seduction? This is, don't forget, a 'serio-comic' novel, and a 'scorching literary debut'. Banning isn't an option and I wouldn't want to see anything banned anyway - so the best way to send a clear message to the author and her publishers is not to buy this wretchedly nasty, sloppily-executed and exploitative trash.

We are less tolerant these days about sexist and racist and other discriminatory language than we are about the goings-on depicted routinely in transgressive fiction and, especially and dismayingly, about the sexual exploitation of women and children as literary grist. Nabokov's nymphet was twelve years old, Celeste's victim is an elderly fourteen. Unlike Dolores Haze however, Jack is not the focus of a heartbreaking eulogy or eloquent meditation on desire and yearning and the loss of innocence, nor is he the subject of one of the greatest novels of the past century. Jack exists as no more than a device for Nutting's two-dimensional heroine to shag repeatedly, and as such is wholly dehumanised, wholly objectified, wholly exploited. What's particularly ghastly to contemplate is the thought that Lolita would not find a publisher in today's moral climate but that dreck like Tampa does.

Subject matter aside, what is there to say about the author's talent as a writer? 'Crackling, stampeding, rampantly sexualised prose' is the publisher's promise. A promise that turns out to be all gong and no dinner. Here's an example of the author at full tilt:

                  I rinsed and patted him dry before I started giving him his very first rim job. 

Nutting is to Nabokov what Viv Albertine is to F. R. Leavis. And on the evidence here presented Nutting's no match for E. L. James either. Her style is crude, often laughably incoherent. always overwrought and rarely rises to the adequate. It's frustrating to plough doggedly through such shockingly unaccomplished prose - although I suspect the kind of reader scouring Tampa for tips will not be too picky, and will not be put off by a book that lacks style, wit, grace or focus, that offers no moral perspective, no censure, no reward.

Fortunately perhaps, Nutting is such an incompetent and clumsy writer that the sex scenes - garish, inept, crude and insulting to the intelligence - are unlikely to prompt a response even in readers who share or endorse her main character's taste. Tampa is not in any worthwhile way transgressive, subversive, or a timely challenge to our current attitudes towards the sexualisation of minors. It is not comic, not satirical and emphatically not 'a scorching literary debut'. It tells us nothing new about the subject but says a lot about the priorities of contemporary publishing. It is a wretchedly meretricious excuse for a novel, the appearance of which under any imprint would be reprehensible but, coming as it does from T. S. Eliot's old firm, is quite unforgivable. 

Cover images and extracts from Tampa © Faber and Faber Ltd

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