STATS: BOOK / ALISSA NUTTING / 272pp. / 2013
Celeste Price is a gorgeous 26-year-old 14-year-old-craving middle school teacher who starts her first full-time gig after much masturbatory anticipation, viewing her class as a male meat market, gritting her teeth through inane group discussions of Romeo + Juliet, until she finds a suitable boy, after which …
… a book about selfishness in all of its guises, dimensions, joys, and destructions ensues. You could read it on a sociopolitical level, in terms of examining how women, especially young and beautiful women, who happen to be sexual predators can operate and expect to be treated in 2013 America, as opposed to old, ugly men (how even the notion of a young, beautiful female sexual predator, rather than prey, is almost oxymoronic and thus darkly powerful) … but I tend not to read things on this level.
Instead, TAMPA gripped me on the level of a psychological dispatch from the interior of a very smart, very capable person motivated by an urge so extreme it can tolerate no alternative or moderation. Nutting never trivializes her subject into something explicable, but she does allow Celeste the time and eloquence to express the seriousness and the complexity of her desire — building nuances and stages and shadings, and painstakingly orchestrating it against the tide of social reality, without reducing it to reasons or suggesting that it’s possibly curable.
Celeste’s is a mix of physical and psychological turn-ons: her boys’ cusp-pubescent bodies are a big part of it, the way in which their forms are erotically expressed as male but not yet manly … but there’s something else too: their innate, almost unwitting 14-year-old-ness … the perspective on sex and the female body that they can’t help but have, the full-to-bursting cache of never-acted-upon fantasies — the mixture of primate-lewdness and untempered awe with which they see her, and with which she, or part of her, wants, vicariously, to see herself:
“I’d be the sexual yardstick for his whole life: Jack would spend the rest of his days trying but failing to relive the experience of being given everything at a time when he knew nothing.”
“We get to have the very best part of a relationship be our whole relationship. With us it’s dessert for every meal.”
That the boys are 14-year-olds is a particular dramatic crux: if they were 8-year-olds, the wrongness of her predation would be obvious and irrefutable (not to mention the particular sex acts would have to be more creative), whereas if they were 17-year-olds, it’d be more or less cool save for the legal technicality. But 14 is a fraught middle zone, where they’re old enough to have reached physical sexual maturity, and certainly old enough to enjoy the coming-true of an almost impossible-to-not-have adolescent fantasy … and yet … what?
I don’t quite know, but it’s something emotional: I think it’s that they can’t quite understand how they’re being used, can’t, indeed, understand that anyone could use another person in the way she’s using them. Their ability to have sex far outstrips their ability to process it, which, from a purely evolutionary standpoint, makes I suppose plenty of sense.
So things like LOVE flood their nascent systems. When her first and main boy starts proclaiming it, hurt, for him, and disgust, for her, cannot be far off: “Jack had already adopted the illusion that we’d date through his entire high school career and beyond … In truth, our relationship’s shelf life was closer to that of an elderly Labrador.”
I’ve seen Celeste called, in some quarters, “the female American Psycho,” but, while Nutting has surely read and given serious thought to Ellis’ masterpiece, and has indeed created a character that is likewise young, beautiful, and charming enough to indulge in egregiously taboo acts in plain sight … and although she develops a similar pattern of trapping the reader fully inside the repetitive, almost mantra-like thought patterns of a predator, to the exclusion of all other narration, such that the entire world is filtered through an antisocial and devious lens …
… her book nevertheless gets into the darkness of an acted-upon inner life in a different way: for Patrick Bateman, violence is casual and meaningless, a petty distraction on the level of Armani suits, exclusive restaurants, bathroom-snorted cocaine, videocassette rentals, and Whitney Houston. The point is that no number of murders and executions can sate or even soothe true boredom and vapidity … so being a violent psychopath isn’t especially fulfilling or even important, it’s just one more thing you can do to try to hide from the fact that you hate yourself if you have enough money.
For Celeste, the desire to seduce and serially fuck 14-year-old boys is genuine and actually fulfilling: she’s truly motivated by it, she knows it’ll make her happy, and it does. The question of why it makes her happy, and whether the fact that it does is a good or a bad thing, is another matter, but there’s no doubt that it’s something speaking from her core … a body part that Patrick Bateman doesn’t even have, let alone listen to.
Celeste, like Bateman, is bored and surrounded by idiots and pedants, but she cuts through this morass toward something else, trying to extract and cherish one worthwhile thing, whereas Bateman, in his porny sadistic way, ends up basically just stirring it.
As I’ve been trying to say, TAMPA is a rare book that gives selfishness its due. I’m not saying it condones pedophilia, manipulation, and the disregard of how one’s actions affect the outside world, but it allows a woman who wants something, and is willing to subjugate others to get it, to speak, convincingly, for herself.
Putting its money where its mouth is, the book is unafraid to be genuinely sexy — Nutting doesn’t need to turn you against Celeste by casting her acts as, in and of themselves, repellant. The sex scenes are sincere and moving, and undeniably arousing — not parodic and dismissive in the manner that Ellis has perfected (much as I love what he does for what it is).
Instead, Nutting puts you (or me, anyway) half in the minds and bodies of her 14-year-olds, and half in Celeste’s.
TAMPA is, of all the books I’ve ever read, the one that’s brought me the closest to believing I can imagine (at least some of) the physical and emotional sensations of having a female body and a female’s heterosexuality. It’s impossible to know whether this is objectively true, but this was certainly my experience while reading, for which I’m grateful — I feel as though I grew as a person because of it. My sense of the fullness of human experience, even if it’s only an internal sense, expanded.
“The numbers could never be as favorable as they were right now, when his naïveté would be subtracted from my expertise to produce the largest sum of astonishment possible.”