What makes a piece of fiction erotica? I’d say that erotic fiction is defined by explicit sexual content included for its own sake (not necessarily in service of a story) and an intent to arouse. Since as far back as John Cleland’s Fanny Hill: Or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (published in England in 1748), erotic fiction has tended to have a cyclical, masturbation-friendly structure. Flimsy, ostensibly plot-advancing sequences segue into sexual encounters much in the way pizza deliveries and doctor appointments perfunctorily frame pornographic movies, providing a bit of context and loosely situating the observed participants.
Then there are difficult-to-classify books like Phillip Roth’s 1995 National Book Award winning Sabbath’s Theater, which contains some of the most stunningly dirty writing I’ve ever encountered and certainly aims to arouse but, because of the relentless and disturbing connections Roth draws between sex and death, and his complicated, elevated prose, the book would be out of place on a shelf next to the more mom-friendly, BDSM-lite Fifty Shades of Grey.
Tampa, Alissa Nutting’s first novel, is difficult to label but for different reasons. The book has garnered attention in advance of its release as something of a gender-inverted Lolita spiced up with a dash of American Psycho’s nihilism: It features a female, 26-year-old narrator who has an all-consuming sexual fetish for 14-year-old boys and becomes an eighth-grade English teacher to satisfy her urges.1 In part, Tampa seems to belong to the literary-fiction-infused-with-sex, Rothian genre—a novel with titillating interludes but also a core idea: how much less disturbing we find relationships between grown women and young boys than those between men and underage girls. (“Are the boys really victims, or just lucky?”—the jokes go when stories of this ilk arise in the national media.) But Tampa’s challenge to that the double standard is not especially potent. Because its sexual content is both highly graphic and purposefully off-putting, it occupies uneasy, unresolved territory between erotica and satire.
The plot revolves around a student named Jack Patrick, whose “lanky-limbed smoothness” thrills the narrator, Celeste, to the point of derangement and whose lack of parental supervision provides opportunities for conquest. Celeste, who rigorously maintains her “perfectly taut,” blond, berry-smelling person in strict alignment with teen fantasy, seduces him without trouble. After weeks of reconnaissance that mostly involves masturbating in her car outside Jack’s house, she keeps him after class and offers him her body, which he seizes enthusiastically, if with disbelieving befuddlement. So begins an affair that is energetically conducted in her car and Jack’s house until Jack’s paunchy, lecherous jackass of a father becomes a problematic interloper and things begin to unravel.
Celeste’s desire for a specific sort of boy—“at the very last link of androgyny that puberty would permit him: undeniably male but not man”—is cast as an innate, insatiable perversion rooted in a fear of death. For Celeste, sex is a Rothian engine pistoning away in a doomed race against the tide of mortality. She is plagued by an awareness “that my time with Jack, that our bodies and everything we’d each ever known, would all inevitably decay and fall apart.” The sight of her 31-year-old husband, a cop with family money, smoking a cigar makes him “seem even more ancient, as though he was smoking his very own future cremains.” She knows, even if Jack does not, that she will lose interest in him within a year or two. When she gets old enough to have more difficultly finding willing partners, she plans to pay runaways for sex.
Tampa’s investigation of the double standard it invokes lacks emotional force, however, because the nuances of the boys’ experiences are obscured by their physical eagerness and by Celeste’s soulless narration. Jack, being a smitten and dazzled teenager, believes he and Celeste will be together forever, but we only see his distress through her brusque annoyance at his devotion. When he asks her to tell him she loves him, she gives in: “it would be more than slightly hypocritical for me to belabor the conversation further by taking some odd stance on an insistence of honesty.” An interesting moment is lost in stilted language.
While the more complex emotions at play in Tampa are sometimes given short shrift, Celeste’s fantasies and encounters are explicitly and relentlessly rendered. But Tampa does not quite descend to the level of pure porn; its flights of fancy often sail into the stylized realm of the ridiculous:
I imagined Jack’s body made gigantic standing before me … if his horizon-colored 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 accidentally kill me when the sequoia-sized head of his penis came crashing through my windshield.
Well, that’s one way to go. She spends so much time masturbating that I eventually wondered why there weren’t more scenes where she does laundry. Bowling with her husband, she imagines “a pantless Jack standing spread-eagle atop the lane’s gleaming wooden floors, repeatedly bending over and swinging the bowling ball between his knees, his testicles coming alive with motion.” Late in the novel, cut off from Boyd, the kid who succeeds Jack, Celeste says she’d give anything “for just an eyedropper of [his] semen to play with.” Maybe I’m unadventurous, but I would describe these longings not as erotic but as silly or, in the case of the last, gross. The wild explicitness, too, demonstrates how Tampa is a product of the double standard it criticizes: with the genders reversed but the raunchy content preserved, Tampa would never have been published—at least not by HarperCollins.
Despite its surreal moments, Tampa doesn’t quite transcend erotica because if you excised all the descriptions of genitals and bodily secretions, there wouldn’t be much left. Lolita this is not. Humbert Humbert seduced the reader with elegance of thought, shifting admissions of guilt, and gorgeous verbal trickery. Celeste’s description of her own sociopathic blankness and single-minded sexual predation is straightforward, unrepentant, and betrays little desire to win over the reader. The relentlessly graphic language surrounding transgressive desire is intended to shock, but is it intended to arouse? I think so, even if Celeste’s sexual quest is unsympathetic and the idea of sex with a middle schooler repellent. Bombard readers with enough sex talk, though, and probably something in there will hit the mark, however imperfectly. Maybe the intention in provoking arousal is to engender another layer of shock, to force readers to reconsider their own depraved depths. But that seems more like a form of entrapment more than a catalyst for revelation.
I’ll also admit to some difficulty fully believing in a woman with Celeste’s particular voraciousness, which perhaps is part of the point of the book. Nutting seems interested in provoking skepticism as a way of drawing attention to the prejudices that underlie it. We don’t expect women to be pedophilic nymphomaniacs, and yet Celeste’s entire psyche is occupied by sex; she spends every hour of every day either actively pursuing it, perfecting her body as a lure, or, in her down time, masturbating to such stimuli as boy band videos. Maybe my imagination is at fault here—certainly human desire exists in almost infinite variety, and certainly women can be monstrous. Celeste comes across as an unrepentant sociopath, both in terms of her sexual exploitativeness and her total lack of compassion. Confronted with a corpse whose death she is arguably responsible for, her response is to poke at its cheeks with a “manicured toe” and feel for a pulse with her foot. Elsewhere she remarks that she does not want a son because “at a certain age it would be impossible to ignore him.”
Unmitigated monstrosity is not the most incisive means of approaching the subject of female pedophilia. By making Celeste essentially inhuman, a satirical cartoon of a predator, Nutting avoids the tangled issues of power that lie beneath cultural norms for gender and sex. If Celeste were complicated beyond her fixation, the novel would be more erotic, more transgressive, and sharper in its commentary.