As an art student, I learned very quickly that one person’s neutral vessel is another person’s politically freighted, irreducibly marked load.
As Alissa Nutting’s Tampa scandalizes readers, the author defends her novel’s transgressive eroticism as a devilish temptation that readers must resist.
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Alissa Nutting’s first collection of short fiction, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, was selected by Ben Marcus for the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction. That book—made up of stories with titles like “Bandleader’s Girlfriend,” “Corpse Smoker,” “Teenager,” “Hellion,” and “She-Man”—is an often fantastical, always mockingly familiar taxonomy of female “types.” The protagonists of each tale continually peel, erase, or redecorate the labels that the author applies to them along with the associations that readers might have with such labels. Michael Martone called the pieces “panoplies of syntactic semantic seismic wonders.” Kate Bernheimer said of Nutting: “I want to be her avatar.”
Nutting’s first novel, Tampa, is out now from Ecco/HarperCollins. The hardcover has a furry black jacket that is hard not to stroke like a campy villain petting a Persian in heat. Based on Debra LeFave, a high-school classmate of Nutting who in 2004 was arrested in Florida for lewd and lascivious battery of her fourteen-year-old male student, Tampa is narrated by Celeste, a young, gorgeous, effortlessly manipulative, cruelly incisive junior-high teacher with an insatiable sexual compulsion for adolescent boys. An unapologetically dark, dangerously comic social satire, the novel needles gender, power, violence, love, desire, age, commodification, justice, and any other balloon of contemporary hot air that’s there for the popping. It’s a deliriously enjoyable, absolutely shocking book—a morality tale that tempts and taunts readers to succumb to every kind of immorality.
Here Nutting makes clear that cheap titillation is not what her novel is about, and suggests that literature won’t find any answers if it’s afraid to explore questions for all that they’re worth.
Micaela Morrissette In the course of the novel, Celeste seduces two fourteen-year-old boys: Jack and Boyd. In neither case can the reader hold on to any absolute certainty as to whether she is an unforgivable predator, or a teenager’s fantasy, or both—the predation dependent on the fantasy, the fantasy on the predation. Much of the reading experience balances delicately upon this, and you acknowledge the question directly at the end of the book, though without resolving it.
The boys’ experiences seem very different. Jack is on the losing end of a very distinct imbalance of power: he’s deeply in love with Celeste and unable to resist her deliberate manipulations. As for Boyd, there’s almost nothing in the book to imply that he suffers any ill effects from the trysts. With Jack, you find ways to imply abuse, but you empower Boyd with what seems like self-determination, real individual agency, and the power of free choice. Why?
Alissa Nutting I felt like the book needed both characters in order to acknowledge the different social views surrounding this type of scandal. With Jack, we easily see the emotional harm she causes him, both inside and outside of their sexual relationship. With Boyd, his “fun” never seems to stop. One of the troubling things about the dialogue surrounding these cases in the media is the conflation of arousal with consent when it comes to underage males and female adults. There’s this sense of, “he wanted it, he enjoyed it, so what’s the harm?” So Boyd’s character is me needling that discussion. We don’t see him feeling upset about their encounter, which I think is important.
What I want readers to ask is this: Are the same acts she does with Boyd as she does with Jack somehow less wrong because of Boyd’s reaction? Is an underage victim’s reaction relevant to the act’s criminality? How capable are fourteen-year-olds (or minors in general) of weighing in on the psychological harm that’s being done to them, or predicting how these events will psychologically affect them in the future?
MM However agentless or empowered readers may decide that each boy actually is, there’s no question that Celeste is a heartless bitch. Lolita is the obvious parallel to Tampa, as you’ve discussed elsewhere, and I found it intriguing that you were far more forthright than Nabokov in acknowledging the emotionlessness of your pedophile. Humbert may, in a twisted way, really be in love with Lo, but there’s no possibility that Celeste is operating on any higher plane of feeling when it comes to Jack and Boyd.
AN Lolita isn’t challenging the traditional roles of male predator/female victim. Readers are ready to understand Humbert as a predator from the get-go. So there’s no sense of, “Why is society giving Humbert a pass on his behavior?” in Lolita—society isn’t. I wanted to get Celeste to a satirical level of moral wrongness to really highlight just how messed up it is that she’s able to skate above true condemnation due to being an attractive female. This isn’t a person who is having any sort of ethical struggle or guilt about what she’s doing. She’s simply out to bed underage males, and she’s remorseless about that. And because of society’s reception of her and problematic views of male sexuality, she’s freely able to be so.
MM A couple reviews of Tampa praise the novel while pointing out that the pedophilia makes it a hard read, and you yourself have talked about the reader’s need to resist the sexual temptation posed by your work. While I hope that neither you nor the Internet at large is going to vilify me for this, I will, without guilt, commit to finding Tampa a real turn-on. I believe that the fact that I felt this way made it a much craftier, more powerful, more scary fiction, because I was fully implicated in the transgressions you present.
You kick off the book with some straight-up out-of-the-gate in-your-face hot-and-heaviness that is masturbatory, victimless. This makes me more comfortable slipping into the dynamic that drives Celeste—it also allows you to sexualize and objectify her for quite a while before she actually gets a chance to sexualize and objectify anybody herself. And, because Celeste’s condition seems, to some extent, to draw on her memories of her own sexual awakening as a teenage girl, I’m forced to admit that I, too, have lascivious memories of teenage boys. What she wants is something that once, not so long ago, was perfectly acceptable for her to have.
These decisions on your part made it easier to become an accessory to the fact that the fictionis erotic. It’s not just about sex, it’s sexy: a sexual act perpetrated by the writer on the reader. How important was this aspect of things to you: the moral culpability of the reader in the crimes that take place, the reader’s participation in the book’s kinks?
AN I think these sorts of scandals are such a tricky subject in our society because we’re not willing to have the dialogue outside of a dishonest binary, and it leaves our teenagers more vulnerable to adult predators as a result. One side drains all aspects of desire and attraction out of it: they negate any sort of sexual feeling involved on behalf of the victim. This has happened with some Internet comments surrounding the novel, even in prepublication, that have labeled the book as “child porn.” Such oversimplified reductions really cripple the issue and fail to protect teenagers because it doesn’t acknowledge the fact that once puberty hits, they might be sexually attracted to or develop romantic feelings for adults.
We likewise have to be honest that adults—particularly, I think, with female adult/underage male transgressions—can bring adult fantasies to the table when they hear about cases like this: the “hot for teacher” pornography trope, or memories of consensual teenage-peer sex, as you mention. It should be stated so there can be an open discussion about the need to separate attraction and action, and adequately inflect upon our youth the urgent reasons for separating these. I don’t think our teenagers get informed about the ways that adult/underage relationships are a far different act and power dynamic than consensual peer acts or adult sexual fantasies, because when such scandals occur, there’s a temptation on behalf of society to place them in one of two clear-cut boxes: saying they’re just like child/adult crimes, or they’re just like adult/adult sexual relationships. Neither one is the case. If we try to warn teenagers about adult sexual predators the same way we try to warn eight-year-olds about adult sexual predators, without addressing the possibility of arousal, then when teenagers feel arousal they’re not going to be able to read the situation as predatory.
MM Mark Cugini asked a great question in an interview with HTMLGiant: “Were you actively thinking about the way different genders would respond to this book?” And you have a great response—that male readers will tend to identify with the male students, and female readers with Celeste, and that both will end up having to struggle in different ways against finding the book “sexy.” I find this really interesting. As a woman, would you be more comfortable, politically and ethically, reading a book about a straight female sexual predator, or a straight male sexual predator, and why?
AN My initial guess is that the more social power dynamics the predator has in his/her corner against the victim (age, status, class, race, social context), the more overtly violent it would be when reading it, but it’s hard to say. It’s difficult to hierarchize or compare pain and victimization. I don’t know that changing the gender or the sexual orientation of the predator makes me any less uncomfortable. There’s just difference in the discomforts. A straight female sexual predator is different than a straight male sexual predator, but no more or less discomforting. I strongly think there’s value in analyzing that difference, though, which is part of why I wrote the book.
MM Leaving aside Celeste’s abuse of underage boys, what, for you, is the greatest wrong—greatest sin, greatest injustice, greatest sadness—that Tampa contains?
AN I think the root of the problem is our nation’s comfort and insistence upon valuing looks and youth in women above all else. Since I’m harping on and on about honesty, I’ll openly acknowledge something here that I’ll probably be condemned for, but I feel like it’s endemic of a greater issue that affects a lot of girls and women rather than simply being a personal failing of mine. In high school, back when the woman who was arrested for sleeping with her student was my peer, I’d pass her in the hallways and feel extreme jealousy—she’s beautiful, and I wanted to be that beautiful too, and have the popularity and adoration that would bring. When she was arrested and I saw her on the news, despite my shock, despite my repulsion at what she’d done, there was a brief moment where I caught myself drowning out what the newscaster was saying about the case as I looked at her mug shot … I realized I was staring at it and thinking, “Man, I wish I looked like her.” That’s how ingrained inside my brain the urge to value beauty and be beautiful is—she’d just committed this jaw-dropping crime, and I was focusing on her appearance. I think our society likewise sets women up to compete against one another, and another shameful thing I caught myself thinking was how I felt ugly in comparison to her. She’d just committed statutory rape, yet I was looking at her and feeling upset that I’m not as attractive as she is. That’s pretty messed up. As a feminist I immediately felt ashamed of course, discovering myself doing that. I’d like to pretend I didn’t. But shame isn’t proactive; it won’t change anything. So I wanted to write about the cultural values that promote such thoughts and address them in my book.
MM There’s an important difference between Celeste and the idea most of us have of the typical male pedophile—she idealizes youth not only in her lovers, but in herself. She doesn’t appear to really crave the power of a mature adult over an innocent fledgling of a boy, although she’s terrific at exploiting that power. What she seems to actually want is to be the same age as the boys she covets—not even really such a stretch, since she’s only twenty-six. You make reference to this longing of hers several times, but it’s not essential to the storyline, except in those scenes where it plays into the idea that sex with her husband somewhat resembles the sexual coercion of an unwilling girl by a male adult. Is her obsession with her own age a rare gesture toward rendering her character more sympathetic: making her, in a certain sense, less a predator than a victim of, say, an unusual body-dysmorphic disorder?
AN You’re right, this trait of hers is an indictment against our culture rather than an indictment against her character, and it is one of the rare areas where, as a woman, I can sympathize with her. Mainstream culture seems to forbid women from aging and asks us to try to police ourselves against the process and delay it in any chemical, surgical, or cosmetic way we possibly can. Celeste has taken this message to heart—satirically so, of course, but she’s not without real-life parallels in this regard. There are twenty-something-year-old women getting Botox injections. There are probably even some teenage girls who do. I remember hearing about a case of a San Diego mom who gave her eight-year-old daughter Botox injections. You don’t hear the reverse headline, mothers doing that to their eight-year-old sons.
MM So far, both in Tampa and Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, you’ve demonstrated a pretty consistent commitment to a certain voice: first-person female, with juicily, snappily, intoxicatingly contemporary diction (even when the stories are set in a future or fantastical place). If you were going to write a third-person historical narrative about a dude, what would it be?
AN I’m actually writing one now! A novel inspired by Ted Bundy.
MM Can you tell us some of the writers you love whose work seems to you to be completely different from your own? Are you able to read those writers—or to read other fiction—while you’re working on a very engrossing project like Tampa? How does being in the midst of writing a book affect your reading habits?
AN The last three fiction books I read and loved, all forthcoming, were all wildly different stylistically than my own writing—The Violet Hour by Katherine Hill (Simon & Schuster), which is intensely lyrical and elegant; The Rise and Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic: Stories by Christopher Merkner (Coffee House Press), which has a wrenching minimalist brutality; and Bones and All by Camille DeAngelis (St. Martin’s Press), which has an engrossing cannibal protagonist.
I feel like it’s important to read widely, across genre and style—you pick up great new tricks with each exposure to a text with different strengths than your own writing has. I do try to both read every day and write every day, though sometimes I get a little too excited with the writing time and let it eat up the reading time too. But I think it’s so important to be actively reading while writing. If writing is like driving a car, reading is stopping to fill up with gasoline.
MM I know that Tampa is your first published novel—is it the first novel you’ve ever written, or is there a prior effort locked in a secret safe? For a first novel (or any novel), it’s incredibly tight and cohesive, with terrific propulsion. Did you struggle at all with the long form—or did you find that creating the short stories that make up Unclean Jobs was technically more strenuous for you?
AN I have two prior efforts locked in a secret safe (actually it’s just a storage box). I do have to approach long forms differently—there’s more planning, more editing, more devotion. I worked as a dog-sitter frequently during grad school, and I like to think of writing a short story as taking a new dog around the block and writing a novel as adopting the dog from the pound.
Micaela Morrissette is the managing editor of Conjunctions.
As an art student, I learned very quickly that one person’s neutral vessel is another person’s politically freighted, irreducibly marked load.