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Sunday, 25 August 2013

Tampa by Alissa Nutting: my thoughts/notes to myself to remember

Tampa is a story about a 26 year old school teacher with an obsession with 14 year old boys that is deeply paedophilic and psychopathic.

It is grippingly horrifying and painfully dirty; not in your 50 Shades of Grey is so gross it's hot kind of way but in a much more traumatic style. The cliché pornographic feel to the story is essential in it's almost bitter satire. Our main character, Celeste, is everything you would find in a trashy porn film - I don't need to describe it because you've already visualised her. This visual aspect is necessary in Nutting's awfully twisted tale, which becomes more and more transparent that she just wants us all to wake up. It's clever in that the story comments on how women's looks and society's expectations of beauty change the way they are treated, without making the female character the obvious victim. Instead, she is vile and completely insane, and the only males that seem to care are her poor naive husband (another witty porn reference: the slow, manly policeman) and her messed-up 14 year old victim, who's dad she chose to let die (in the character's own words). Every other man? "... even having seen all the facts of the case, he still wanted me. He wanted me despite knowing what that meant about him."

While I was initially attracted to Tampa because of it's inevitable Lolita associations (if you haven't read Lolita, do so. It's absolutely masterful writing) - "the modern Lolita" - I was afraid I would be let down because of this. I feared it would be a cheap copy; how far can one really go with a storyline about a paedophile who gets what they want? Nutting proved me entirely wrong, in that her novel cleverly transcends all Lolita connotations despite the similarities. It's fresh, honest writing that separates it from Nabokov in the best way; I can agree with the modern part of the above quote for sure. What Nutting is expressing is different to what Nabokov is and Nutting pulls this off.

The controversial (and bloody excellent, who's the graphic designer??) cover bears more links to Lolita than the story itself, I feel, with it's cunningly innocent but undeniably sexual atmosphere - see: http://venusfebriculosa.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/Aleksander-Bak.jpg . It's been argued that the cover photo is so overtly sexual that instead of criticising the porn-industry-women-aren't-real-unless-they're-pretty-sexy-gets-you-off-and-that's-twisted views of society like the novel does, it simply joins in with them by attracting people with it's obvious theme of sex. While this is undoubtedly true (we all know the age old motto: sex sells), is that not in itself an even bigger comment on the state of affairs? Is it not an irony so apt that Nutting cannot have failed to predict it?

I read a review on The Telegraph website that very interestingly hinted at the contrast between Tampa and a flowery Jane Austen ending, but I have to have my say here: Jane Austen novels may end well for the heroines and heroes of the story, however this does not mean that they are not satirical social bombs. If the stories ended how the 2013 Telegraph reviewer desired, Austen's writing would not be what it is. The romantic (I don't necessarily use the word in a love-esque context here) conclusions are a part of the story, integral to it. I wanted Edward to marry Elinor in Sense & Sensibility. I'm happy that it ended well for them, and why shouldn't it have after Austen had made her social comment? In the same vein, though I'm now talking about Bronte's masterpiece, I wanted absolutely NOTHING more than Jane Eyre to figure out what the reader knows is right. Having said this, I stand strong that Tampa ends the way it should have too: while I desperately wanted the sick narrator, Celeste, to be sent down for life, I also wouldn't have felt satisfied if such a perversely bizarre novel had ended so well. Nutting knows this and her confidence in the plot is evident.

Of course, the best part of reading is that we all make of a book what we will, and each person's interpretation will be different. In this case though, I struggle to see how anyone could not agree with Nutting that it is wrong that a vicious, selfish and sadistic paedophile goes free because of her beautiful body. "If you were a teenage boy, would you consider sex with her abuse?"

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