Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Thoughts about Tampa, by Alissa Nutting

This novel's anti-protagonist narrator, Celeste, is so focused on her own sexual needs, which can be filled only by having sex with unformed adolescent boys, that other elements of what we might consider essential to life, love, friendship, civic duty, and intellectual stimulation, are absent from her consciousness.

But what's brilliant about Alissa Nutting's work is that Celeste's story of putting all her effort into seduction and domination is really an indictment of our culture's similar effort to sexualize and dehumanize itself. Tampa the city has little or nothing to do with the story; it could have happened in any sterile suburb in any part of the country. By setting it in a generic city, Celeste's perverse and cruel acts point right back at us and our larger culture. Like so much covered in the media, Celeste is so glib, so oblivious, so immune to guilt that even though she admits she has "broken" her victim, Jack, there is no remorse for it, not even a crumb. And there are no people in her life that matter to her unless they can be used to further her mission. 

To Celeste, all people are judged by their sexual worthiness. In her mind, no one is worthy of her but young boys. Therefore, she mocks and ridicules her colleagues, the parents of students, students who do not meet her criteria, and her hapless husband. This mockery is all internal, but it is written in such a way that reminds us that culture does this to anyone who isn't beautiful and camera-ready, through television, internet comments, and anywhere else where the id can run wild. While this book was written as satire and some people say they found some of Celeste's narration 'darkly funny,' there is nothing amusing about it when you consider her power to destroy lives because she gets away with so much based on her (very superficial) qualities of attractiveness.

Celeste's narrative becomes at some level pornography; all the actors in the story are reduced to bags of meat that will or will not satisfy Celeste's tastes. And in our culture, we are subject to that same tendency. Stories about beautiful, i.e., worthy of sexual congress, women are elevated into myth on cable television, and hot teachers fulfill the fantasies of their maturing students. Tampa shatters the myth that hot teachers are doing their male students a big favor. Celeste's primary victim, Jack, is ruined by the end. She rejects his love, puts him in constant danger of being caught, and will allow nothing to get in the way of her desires. 

But even if Celeste cannot feel sorry for Jack and his family, we certainly can.

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