I am loath to write a negative review of another female dark fiction writer’s work; it’s tough enough climbing the ladder as a woman writing in the genre without someone of one’s own gender loosening the rungs. To add insult to injury, due to its shocking (and sometimes, misogynistic) nature, the subgenre of transgressive fiction is all but absent of double-X chromosome scribes as it is. I wanted so badly to like Tampa. Alissa Nutting is a talented writer as well as a brave raconteur to tackle a taboo topic with such abandon, and yet…
Tampa is the story of an exceptionally beautiful young teacher who has a predilection for adolescent boys. A number of summaries describe it as a modern Lolita with a gender-bending twist, but this could not be further from the truth. I reread Lolita immediately before starting Tampa (as part of an inexplicable four-month victimization-themed reading kick beginning with Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa), and the only true similarities between Nabokov’s novel and Nutting’s is that one, they are both told as first-person narratives, and two, they both feature protagonists who, in short, isolated scenes, drug the adult caretakers of their victims in order to gain better access to their prey.
Lolita’s Humbert is nothing like Tampa’s Celeste. While the latter is a self-admitted serial pedophile whose attention focuses on a random 14-year-old boy (until puberty shifts into overdrive) and then moves onto another victim, the former targets one girl for an extended amount of time, professing his love for her long after she escapes and grows into adulthood. This is not to say that Humbert is not a criminal: he is. However, even as he fears discovery and punishment, he shows some remorse and repeatedly expresses recognition that he has damaged Dolores. Celeste shows zero empathy for her victim, Jack, and continually and callously plots her eventual disposal of him in her mind even as he naïvely professes his undying love for her.
I admit, delicious echoes of Chuck Palahniuk’s Choke and Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho do pop up in scenes between Celeste and her blockhead husband, Ford, as well as in a few of the bonkers interactions with the terrible teacher she pretends to befriend. It is in these brief moments that the transgressive satire is clear. However, the repeated overly-detailed descriptions of sex, while perhaps intended to be satirical of eroticism, fall flat with stilted language that made me sometimes question if I were reading an instruction book instead of a narrative. Most importantly, Celeste, as a character, has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. She is painted with heavy strokes as a flat, uninteresting protagonist. I didn’t care if she was caught; I didn’t care if she got away with her crimes: I simply wanted the story to end. The final, third act did take me by surprise, and Nutting should be applauded for not taking the predictable road. However, had she given her main character even an inkling of likeability, or even, humanity, Tampa might have been a daring and well-done work. American Psycho’s painfully self-absorbed yuppie victims offer readers a small glint of satisfaction (and perhaps, absolution) when Patrick Bateman commits his atrocities. In Tampa, there are only naïve, sad-sack children to pity and a narcissistic sociopath of which to rapidly tire.