The Profane and the Ridiculous
Tampa and My Education Are Two Very Different Sexual Encounters
The It Book this summer is Alissa Nutting's Tampa (Ecco, $25.99), a novel so desperate for the attention of the book-buying public that it's wrapped in a fuzzy dust jacket designed to entice browsers into fondling a copy. It only gets fondlier on the inside: Tampa is narrated by Celeste Price, a young, beautiful schoolteacher with a ghastly secret. She's sexually attracted to teenage boys, preferably age 14 or 15. And Price embraces her pedophilic tendencies; she's excited to start her teaching career so she can prey on students.
The sex is copious, highly illegal, and methodically described. Price is unsympathetic and unrepentant. She loathes her husband, the parents of her young prey, and all her coworkers. (She fantasizes about the death of her husband, with "pert adolescent males singing around his corpse, removing their colorful jerseys and swinging them above their heads in celebration.") She constructs schemes on top of improbable schemes in order to keep indulging her obsession. It's all so very prurient, a stink bomb aimed at easily offended readers who'll clutch their pearls and urge a boycott (nothing sells books like a boycott). Comparisons to Lolita will no doubt be launched.
But the obvious difference is that Lolita is beautifully written, a testament to (and chronicle of) Nabokov's love of the English language. Tampa is all shrewd calculation and awkward imagery. Early in the book, Price imagines "a moment when lust might be able to operate my labia as a ventriloquist's dummy and speak aloud," and she draws "the ledge of [her] pubic bone against the head of [a teenage boy's] penis, pressed it there like a photograph beneath the plastic velum of an album page cover." There will be some who claim that by addressing an ugly, perverse side of female sexuality, Nutting is performing a subversive feminist act. This is not that book; Tampa is just a smarmy little pulp thriller.
But as long as novelists take teaching jobs in MFA programs, the forbidden teacher-student sexual dynamic will always be a central theme of fiction. And sometimes it can be used to great effect: Susan Choi's new novel, My Education (Viking, $26.95), starts on familiar ground, as a young student named Regina Gottlieb is warned about charismatic professor Nicholas Brodeur but finds herself drawn to him anyway. But it then carves its own unexpected path through that tawdry relationship—Gottlieb winds up in an intense sexual relationship with Brodeur's wife, another professor named Martha.
Gottlieb's first encounter with Martha is unlike anything she'd ever experienced: "Had I been a doll, she might have twisted off each of my limbs, and sucked the knobs until they glistened, and drilled her tongue into each of the holes." This is an image 10 times more salacious—and incalculably better written—than any of the sex in Tampa. It advances character and themes. It takes up residence in your head like a dirty little pop song.
I don't want to misrepresent things here: My Education isn't all about sex. It follows a small group of people for a decade or so; at one point, Choi transports us to years later, after characters have married and had children, and expects us to figure out where we are through context clues. She isn't a writer who worries herself with making sure her characters are likable. We encounter just about everyone in My Education at the worst times in their lives, when they are at their most desperate, or angry, or self-obsessed. Everyone gets on everyone else's nerves. Regrettable sex happens. Selfish choices are made. And Choi explains it all in muscular sentences that charm and shock and power the narrative:
And yet there were times in that endlessly dilating week—for every day's newness made days within days, so that the week seemed to magically lengthen, the more it diminished—when Martha and I, having drunk our way past drunkenness to a gritty sobriety; having eaten ourselves hungry again; most rare having fucked ourselves calm, so that sex relinquished its hold for a while on our minds; would sit across from each other in that professor's apartment, or in a white-doily coffeehouse run by Greek Orthodox nuns, or in a bleach-washed linoleum Chinatown diner with scum-covered lobsters in tanks by the door, simply pouring ourselves out to each other in talk, as we somehow had not done before.
What Choi argues is this: It's sometimes in our most profane moments, when we indulge every naughty craving our bodies offer up to us, that we manage to introduce ourselves to the greatest loves of our lives.