First and foremost, in the publisher’s own words Alissa Nutting’s debut novel, Tampa, is a serio-comedy. It is meant to be sexually explicit, reminiscent of American Psycho in the character’s psychology, and satirical about desire. It is not for the easily disturbed or sexually timid. The subject matter is one of society’s largest taboos, and the main character is a narcissistic psychopath.
That being said, Tampa is an absolutely brilliant novel and will rank among the top books of the year. Celeste truly is every single foul word and clinical label one could throw at her, and yet Ms. Nutting creates a character that is ever so slightly sympathetic in her depravity. Jack, for all his youth, is not quite the innocent he appears to be, and the ticking time bomb that is their relationship is a fascinating study of power and sex.
Celeste is a psychiatrist’s dream case because she displays such a wide variety of mental disorders and addictions. She is all about power and sex. She is the type of person who feels that the world owes her everything because she is beautiful. She uses her outward appearance to hide her thoughts and present the world with a model front – polite, helpful, and sincere. When that fails, she uses sex to manipulate others. She is psychopathic in the truest sense – charming, manipulative, capable, highly organized, remorseless, and disregarding of the laws and the rights of others. She is also highly sexualized, given over to pleasuring herself for hours on end and still ravenous for more. She is psychopathy, narcissism, and sexual addiction all rolled up in one package.
However, her mental disorders also create a sense of the true sadness behind her situation. She knows her predatory nature, her seduction and use of teenage boys, as well as her behaviors surrounding anything having to do with achieving her goals is so very wrong. She even acknowledges this in her recognition that she absolutely cannot have children, not only for narcissistic reasons but also because of the fear of having a boy and ultimately walking down a path of taboo behavior even she does not want to contemplate. It is the only time she ever hints that she cannot control her urges and in fact is helpless when they become too much for her. It is this comment which elicits the hint of sympathy, for if she is truly psychopathic and beset by multiple personality disorders and mental illnesses, her behavior to some extent is not her fault. She is quite frankly very ill.
This smattering of sympathy is just that though – very tiny and only because she does recognize her harmful actions. However, as she does nothing about them other than to gratify them, the compassion is fleeting. She is ill but seeks no help. She makes no excuses and seeks every opportunity to rid herself of annoying obstacles to the fulfillment of her desires. Again, she is an absolutely fascinating character that is simultaneously revolting and intriguing.
As mesmerizing as Celeste is, her boys are equally interesting. Their involvement with Celeste generates an entirely new path of discussion. One can easily see their manipulation at her hands but surprisingly, one can also see where their physical existence reduces her power. At several points, Jack’s demands/pleas/desires force Celeste to abandon her immediate plans to avoid disrupting the entire arrangement. Her obsession with fulfilling her sexual needs places the power firmly in Jack’s hands, and it is enthralling to watch him realize this fact. Even better, this is something Jack’s eventual replacement understands almost immediately, and it ultimately leads to her downfall. The dynamics of the situations in which Celeste places herself are disturbing and yet captivating because they are so nuanced.
Tampa is like the proverbial train wreck. It does not bear watching and yet one’s eyes remain glued to the carnage like a junkie waiting for his next fix. Psychologically, it is one of the best books published. Ms. Nutting explores the pathology of a pedophile and her victims with a detailed exactness that is frightening in its explicitness and yet utterly absorbing. Everything about Celeste is appalling except for that one small modicum of pity when one considers how truly sick she is, while the boys garner both pity and a bit of fear once they realize their own abilities for manipulation. It is a shocking and utterly unforgettable story, and it is no wonder the book world is all abuzz about this breathtaking story.