Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Alissa Nutting's Tampa

I dislike almost every online review I’ve read of this novel, pro or con, thus providing my chief stimulus for this consideration.

Tampa, because it’s based on the actual lurid adventures of a female hebephile, got a lot of coverage, much of it focusing on the sociological issues and legal ramifications weighing on the narrative like a 60000 lb elephant expanding with each ingested and titillating doughnut while among several innocents trapped in a rec room.

The novel’s advocates: Nutting bravely shines a light on the often overlooked crime of women in power sexually abusing young males. She reveals the hypocrisy in a society which still considers a fourteen year-old male student to be the benefactor, not the victim, in this scenario.

The novel’s detractors: The sex scenes, which extended to the way the book was marketed, were damning in that they ironically set out to excite the reader, thereby adding to the bottom line of both author and publisher. (Duncan White’s review in The Telegraph was particularly adamant with this criticism.)

To the advocates: the big picture 60 Minutes-style overview is reductive, obvious, shallow, and unimaginative. Of course Nutting is pointing out the hypocrisies and sententious blather of the mouth-breathing boob tube enthusiasts, the boasting idiocies of the jock culture, the silence or downplaying or oppositional stance from female sexual-abuse support groups. But that’s a muted grand issue and, in that wise weighing of proportional characterization-within-theme, it shows a real and rare skill in a book fighting its way within a literary world – from author, reviewer, award-giving panel, and reader – frequently consumed by ideological positions of moral uplift that conflates a book’s worth with its potential for social change.

To the detractors: the sex scenes are indeed covered with a rancid motel 6 oil of pornographic spew. That’s the point. The first-person criminal sociopath described her experiences in A into B geometric, goal-scoring terms because that’s how she experienced them. The reader isn’t welcomed into a world of bad porn, but one of the psychology of desire without emotion. This is particularly well done because the predator’s demeanor with Jack is smooth, accommodating, encouraging, even laudatory. And it’s this frightening duplicity – everything she does is as a means to sate, temporarily, her sexual addiction – that shows what Nutting is about with her lead, both in and out of the bedroom.

Another negative position taken by the novel’s critics focuses on the improbable plot points. I don’t know. Have any of these people read Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, or Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”? I’m assuming they refer to the (spoiler alert!) father’s sudden death, or to the courtroom scene. These aren’t everyday outcomes, but there’re many stranger events happening every day, and you don’t have to read the Enquirer’s 86 lb front-page kitty to discover them. I thought the plot, though baggy at times, propulsive and dramatic.

Finally, both pro and con reviewers remarked on the writing. Either it was wonderful or awful. I found it was frequently wonderful and awful, sometimes on the same page. Here are two quotes from page 102:

“Suddenly all the panic inside me that had recently drained gushed back in full force.”

“He took a seat on my desk, his pants rising up to reveal trouser socks patterned with rows of tiny rainbow-trout icons.”

Nutting overwrites, and her syntax is often awkward (though the latter deficit isn’t lowlighted here). But she also has a delightful lyrical facility, an imaginative wit and dark humour integrated with emotional seamlessness. Since this is her first novel, and since her faults are repetitive ones, the publisher has to bear a large responsibility for the stylistic failings on board. So – it’s not poorly or expertly written, but is wildly uneven. But I’ll take a wide variation to get to the talented phrases and sentences, rather than endure a competent but talent-challenged and even-keeled experience.

I don’t have time to remark on the other fine psychological investigations Nutting digs into in the book. (The criminal’s reaction, (another spoiler alert!), now behind bars, to her husband’s anguished questions, is devastating in its cold, banal first-person assessment and off-topic trivial concern.) But I suppose it shouldn’t be shocking that a shocking book is praised and denounced for invalid or misconstrued reasons.