The Female Lolita? Patrick Davidson Roberts on the failings of Alissa Nutting’s Tampa


Alissa Nutting
Faber & Faber
paperback, 263 pages
£12.99, ISBN 978-0571303342


For anyone who has ever skimmed through the softer men’s magazines (specifically FHM, Nuts and Zoo), the notion of female sexual confession has become laughably skewed over the years. For at least two pages, there are ‘reader’s confessions’, meaning the sexual escapades of women, gleefully submitted. One does have to wonder at the apparently egalitarian demographic of these supposedly ‘boys-only’ publications. Never has ‘fantasy’ been more fully defined than in these pages: instant threesomes, public cunnilingus, Sapphic frottage and, that snake-oil of erotica, the instantaneous mutual orgasm.

For years, I have smugly accepted the actual authorship of these ‘confessions’ as being male, and have gleefully imagined the sweat-shop (sic) office where they are produced. Somewhere in South London, perspiring towards their deadlines, rows of Keiths and Gerrys and Nigels slog out their commissioned imaginings. And why not? For soft-pornography, these pieces are always female-led (male fantasies are often admirably feminist, once the patriarchal concept is accepted), the men so much meat to the thrust. Even as a twelve or thirteen-year-old, shivering in WHSmith’s, I accepted the confessional medium as, really, one of projection.

Alas, no more. Tampa, the debut novel from Alissa Nutting, has robbed me of such sureties. Standing, as it does, as a 263-page version of one of these fantasies, there is something of literary science fiction at work here. The books shudders, bloated, as a terrifyingly enlarged ‘reader’s confession’ – it is as if Keith, Gerry and Nigel tampa-d (sic) with forces beyond their control, and the result was this book. Its front cover even looks like a B-movie monster’s face: a single pink button-hole, puckered.

Yet a woman wrote it. A woman who has filled this summer with her hopes that Tampa will be viewed as the female Lolita – they have even roped in that definitive literary authority John Niven to speak of ‘a female Humbert’ on the cover. The female Lolita. Humbert made Lillith. Were this even close to the mark, were Tampa a serious novel of any kind then this would be one of those summers to remember. Were this book not a lazily-misjudged, sub-Jilly Cooper sex scene, with attitudes towards the language in which it is written that verge on the desecratory, then Faber would be ripe for congratulation.

As it is, Tampa fails on all levels. The unstoppable weight of top-shelf pornography that bloats the pages is the most obvious failing. The jagged laughability of the places where linguistic ineptitude collide with overweening ambition are a further failing, as are the more specific inconsistencies of the writing itself. The final failing is where the laughter stops; this is the failure of thematic handling. Rather than Lolita, the book that this can more easily be held up to is Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal – a brilliant, ascerbic handling of the rape, by a female teacher, of a child in her class, which, for me, outclasses Nabokov at certain points.

Nutting’s theme and subject matter are not ones to be ignored nor shied away from. Child-rape, whether institutionalised in churches or hidden in seeming-disparity by communities, needs writing about. But self-awareness and arrogance, as we know, seldom go hand in hand, and Tampa is not just a bad book, it is an arrogant book.

To take the pornography, Nutting does not let the large editorial team at her disposal hold her back. The protagonist of Tampa, Celeste Price, is a beautiful woman in her twenties. And the beauty is important – why else would we be so often reminded of it? She and her husband are described as ‘the his-and-hers winners of the genetic lottery’. Celeste reflects, the first time she takes to her car to masturbate at the sight of a teenager sitting in his house, that ‘it wouldn’t be the worst exit ever to die young and beautiful with my pants down inside a Corvette, even if I was parked alone on the side of the road with a sex toy’, which I suppose is fair. And Celeste is infinitely perceptive of the effects of her beauty, volunteering the truly original in her behaviour:

I made sure to face away from Jack so he could see my thonged ass as he spoke. No matter how angry he was, could he really resist looking? Could any straight fourteen-year-old-boy?

Well, no, Celeste, I suppose that they couldn’t. Later, when reflecting on the possibility of prison for her rapine, she raises another novel concept, remembering that ‘more important was staying out of jail, away from the cloying paws of stinking adult women’. Female prisoners as automatic predatory lesbians – again, truly original.

In both of the above examples, Nutting subtly reminds us that this is a novel for heterosexuals: one of the few areas of ‘confessional’ porn that she steers clear of is any hint of Sapphic interest. Understandable, but given her ability to undertake any feat of pornographic realisation in the pursuit of two children, it is interesting that at no point does she allow herself even the dishonesty of a hinted interest in other women – surely that’s something that fourteen-year-old-boys are inordinately responsive to? Well, no, we remember: Celeste is enough. How can they resist?

Besides, she hates other women. She hates men as well, though that hatred is more in response to their slathering bestiality, which even Celeste seems powerless to fully condemn them for. There’s her husband, Ford (coincidentally also the name of a car; it’s clever how Nutting slides in such allusions to the false comforts of material wealth), who ‘like the husbands of most women who marry for money, is far too old’, though she concedes that she ‘should find Ford needlessly attractive: everyone else does’. The other adult male allowed some page-time is Buck, the father of one of Celeste’s rapees. Buck, it would seem, is important as a result of Nutting having hit upon not one but two forms of metaphor for the anti-erotic, and, as this is her debut novel, she wouldn’t want to scrimp on range.

Ford’s unattractiveness is of a more bovine, lumbering nature, with Celeste regularly drugging either him or her (or, on occasion, both) so that sex doesn’t happen or is largely asensual. Not that she’s cruel: she is fine with Ford raping her as she sleeps, as this is something she considers within her control. Oddly, when, towards the end of the book, a hostile and enclosed proximity raises the threat in her mind that ‘Ford, alone with me…could do whatever he wanted – beat me up, rape me’, rape stops being the empowered tool of sexual administration that she had previously thought it to be.

Buck, on the other hand, has a more disgusting touch of the anti-erotic to him. His actions are more to do with the horrible warmth of his breath, or the roughness of his body hair (facial, pubic, gut-covering). If Ford is a worn-out, humping bull, then Buck is more rutting boar or past-it stud, and one has to admire the persistence of belief that Nutting has in these metaphors, if nothing else about them.

What’s really wrong with both Ford and Buck, though, is their adulthood. As is documented in the early pages of the book, Celeste is actually after males on the cusp of transition. Her experiences at fourteen convinced her that The Only Way Is Fourteen, and she has become a teacher in order to be among the buffet.

This is, from the outset, a problem. Celeste admits to herself that fourteen won’t last forever, and so repeatedly sets herself up for liaisons that have a limited shelf-life. Better, surely, to go younger? Twelve, thirteen – those are really the ages of transition: big school, voice breaking (not, as she is determined to believe, around fifteen), sex suddenly arrived in awareness, at least? Nutting has decided on fourteen, though, and the reason for that is due, in no small part, to her clanging authorial sloth. Repeatedly, in Tampa, a sex scene reveals the inconsistency of Nutting’s writing. Celeste talks time and again of her ideal boy, reminding herself that what she’s after is a pre-pubescent:

…he might have been suitable physically – he wasn’t yet too tall or muscularly thickened…

He seemed to be a larger, stretched-limbed version of a younger boy…

His build was the slender, undeveloped wiry sort whose tautness revealed the shadowy promise of muscles not yet arrived.

The problem, however, is that Nutting is only really comfortable when she’s writing sex scenes between adults of a similar size. At one point, Celeste takes a rapee off to a hotel, and, in order to sanitise them (and, one imagines, the reader) to her rimming him, gets him to

…take off all his clothes and lie down across the bathroom countertop with his penis hanging down in the sink and his butt positioned directly below the faucet.

…I turned on the water, watching his cheeks momentarily buckle together, then began to carefully wash his asshole, which made him laugh.

Having spent a paragraph or so describing how small the hotel room is, the idea that a fourteen-year-old can lie neatly across a basin is ridiculous, particularly when compared with another sex scene between the two, when

Upon entry he gasped, the relieved sigh of homecoming, and buried his face in the back of my head, roiling his cheeks against my hair

If he is tall enough to touch heads with her, then it is unlikely that he is also small enough to lie across a sink. This is a constant failure on Nutting’s part: she seems unable or perhaps unwilling to depict an adult raping a minor. Fair enough, but then don’t write a novel with graphic sex scenes that involve an adult raping a minor.

What she opts for instead is a form of hurried modification, whereby the child is shown as a child prior to the act, morphs into the (wide-eyed) porn-star of acceptability, and then – hopefully before the reader notices – a post-coital observation or comparison with the adult rapists’ body reminds the reader of the rapee being a child. For example, after pages of her disgust for masculine development, she admits that ‘The feeling of my lips touching stubble brought an instant and dropping hotness to my bowels,’ – but, the reader asks, we thought that the older adolescents were no good for you? After a particularly gruelling first-time sex scene, Celeste pushes ‘my breasts against his chest, feeling the hardened tiny buds of his own nipples through his shirt’, and never has so much literary crack-papering rested on the word ‘tiny’.

Yet these acts of small-equals-young contort the boys whom she rapes; from acceptable Zac Efrons to unstoppable stallions and then down to near-dwarfs. Put simply, Jack (the first rapee) is too old to be this young:

“I’m too skinny,” he began, but I quickly placed one hand over his mouth to avoid further speech and with the other began rubbing across his chest and down his stomach, dipping a finger inside the elastic band of his shorts to stroke the startling delineation of his pubic hair.

Just as her second rapee, Boyd, suffers on the rack of Nutting’s indecision, and this involves him having ‘an advanced level of mastery’ – he is an equal partner, in seduction, with Celeste, it is suggested – but also ‘hands so small that one could easily fit inside me up to his wrist’. I would never usually want to cast aspersions on such penetration, but after 200 plus pages of Celeste’s ‘tightening’, ‘gripping’ and ‘clenching’ vagina, Boyd’s hands are thus rendered gnomic, even freakishly undersized.

An odd side of Nutting’s pornographic renderings is that of an apparently total lack of self-awareness. At one point Jack writes ‘terrible poems in a notebook (When you leave / My heart falls asleep in my chest / and has nightmares of death until you return’, which Celeste mocks, but the cringe-worthy status of the poem is at least comparable (if not inferior) to Celeste,

Slathering myself with SPF and wearing nothing but a wide-brimmed straw hat, I lay nude in our pool’s floating chaise lounge … I thought about Jack there with me, the scent of chlorine and coconut on his skin, his balls tightening in my hand…

And it goes on. Nutting is certainly set on simultaneous orgasms, as they seem to add, for her, a sort of egalitarian consolation. For rape, of course. Strangely, though, there are moments when Nutting seems almost conscious of this constant, dull battering of cheap porn against the reader’s eyes, granting Celeste self-awareness of spending the ‘hours while he was away lost in pornographic flights of imagination’.

However, there are moments of pure authorial laziness, and these would be unacceptable even in a good book. A supposed advantage of setting several scenes in classroom discussions of literature is that the writer might seem to be offering a double-examination of attitudes, both among the characters and the readers of books. This was achieved with surprising novelty in Alexander Maksik’s recent You Deserve Nothing, when some of the existentialist works mentioned in the classroom scenes actually seemed to rub off onto Maksik’s prose.

With Tampa, however (and alarmingly, for Nutting is an assistant professor of creative writing), the literature hits a repeatedly flat note. It’s a point worth considering with Tampa as to whether the hatred that Celeste projects onto Ford might not be better deployed against her profession, as it would allow a little more reflexivity to Celeste’s harvesting of her classroom. In fact, the disinterest with which both Nutting and Celeste treat the literature classes produces results that are, well, boring:

Frank was quick to remind his peers that in Shakespeare’s time Juliet and all of the female characters would have indeed been played by male actors.

But I stared into the green light – The Great Gatsby was assigned to the ninth graders but not the eighth…

“Doesn’t Hamlet start out with a ghost? How is it the most realistic?”…

“Because everyone acts disingenuous,” I said. “And then they all die.”

That final, compelling summation of Hamlet aside, the feeling that one gets is not that Frank needs to remind his peers but that Nutting needs to remind her authors that she does know of what she speaks. But literary awareness, like power, is one of those things that is defined usually by silence: if you have to tell people you have it, then you probably don’t.

There are simply laughable parts to Tampa, which always feels like the cheapest of observations, but when a book claims authority whilst being this interminable they need highlighting. When Nutting attempts to invoke Ballard’s Crash, for example, not once but twice:

I imagined Jack’s body made gigantic standing before me, the sun in the sky becoming the hot metal button of his jeans. If his enormous fingers reached down from the clouds and unbuttoned it, if his horizon-coloured pants began to bunch and fall and his teenage sex of skyscraper proportions was freed, I would drive my car into his toe so he would kneel down to investigate and the accidentally kill me when the sequoia-sized head of his penis came crashing through my windshield…

I pictured us, airborne and naked in the backseat of the falling car, trying desperately to crawl towards one another against the forces of gravity so he could stuff his penis inside me for just one moment before death.

Then there is the matter of Nutting’s completely tin ear. Phrases such as ‘That mid-October in central Florida held on to the distant heat of a diluted summer’ clatter through the novel with all the grace of a pram pushed down steps, and more than a few phrases prompt sheer incredulity from the reader:

…I hoped that Jack Patrick’s two first names meant he was two boys in one: public Patrick, a regular fourteen-year-old schoolboy, and private Jack, who might wilfully submit to every smutty thing I wanted to do to him.

Not content with having given him that name, Nutting is intent on reminding the reader of it being two first names jammed together. By this point this reader was unsure whether it was the book, the author or I who was dull-witted enough to have to have these things explained.

And when the pornography is not stretching the limits of acceptance (the fetishisation of lace underwear, if nothing else, is wilful to the point of torrential), then it is Nutting’s complete lack of confidence in her own inferences:

Seeing angel-faced Jack standing nude inside a room normally used for hourly blowjobs and heroin binges struck me as a delicious treat: the juxtaposition would vividly magnify all his boyish qualities.

After hours, their parking lots always remained peppered with cars and there was absolutely no through traffic; not once did another car come down the road while we were in the middle of anything.

Those colons and semi-colons stand as gateways to the reader bellowing ‘I KNOW what you were inferring! Why are you explaining as well?’

Then there is the repetition of every tired cliché afforded a writer: at one point ‘primal scream’, ‘guttural yell’ and ‘primitive groans’ appear in the same paragraph.

There are wider thematic failings. It is page 202 before any mention of birth control is forthcoming (after at least four unprotected couplings, often within hours of one another). Page 252 and 259 are the only mentions of ‘Rape’ that we get. In the latter case, sure, if the protagonist is so convinced that what she is after is not rape, then why would she refer to it as such? But then why take so much glee in the youth, childishness and implied powerlessness of the rapees? Nutting may have built in the caveat that Celeste secretly wishes for the ‘private’ versions of the boys to be manlier, but her constant insistence on their wide-eyed stares during sex, their boyish (usually baseball-orientated) paraphernalia and the ‘tiny’, ‘small’ and ‘undeveloped’ aspects of them tends to ride roughshod over that caveat.

Tampa fails on several levels, but I am not for a moment suggesting that Nutting is trying (as Alan Bennett has occasionally tried, for example) to usher child-rape into the marketplace through the supposedly ironic lenses of literature. Nutting’s failure is one of judgement. Reading Tampa, the reader is constantly given the idea of a writer who just wants to write a sexy, laid-back book. The problem – as Brett Easton Ellis has run into in recent years, and which James Franco failed at overcoming in Palo Alto – is that Nutting wants to be important, yet cannot bring the talent to match.

This is understandable. In less than fifteen years, American writing has lost the talents (and sometimes the lives) of Bellow, Roth, Updike, Mailer and Ellis. Who wouldn’t want to be ambitious in American writing? To rise to the level of Lolita? Nutting’s decision, however, to write a soft-core porn novel, and then cut-and-paste it into a child-rape narrative is horrendously misjudged, badly executed, and painful to read.

There is one speck of comfort in her Nabokovian ambition, however. Martin Amis has shrewdly observed that the story of Lolita was rehearsed for in Nabokov’s early works, brilliantly executed the once, but then became the writer’s downfall. Book after book – Ada through to The Original of Laura – becomes infected and destroyed by the child-rape obsession, and Nabokov crashes to the ground. One could hope that the same might happen to Nutting. Sadly, though, one feels that this is only the beginning.
Patrick Davidson Roberts is editor of The Next Review.

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