Tampa starts with a bang, so to speak—the first line says, “I spent the night before my first day of teaching in an excited loop of hushed masturbation”—and also explains the narrator’s curious, never-resolved marital predicament: “I find it hilarious that people think Ford and I are the perfect couple based solely on our looks.” I find it curious that the narrator, who is obsessed with teenage boys, wanted to marry Ford or stay married to him. Her marriage exists for no reason outside of the needs of plot mechanics; there are occasional references to Ford’s money, but based on the novel Celeste has a single overriding focus on sex.
That focus doesn’t take a lot of money to maintain, and indeed it would be greatly enhanced by her divorcing Ford, or never marrying him. The closest we get to some kind of rationale, emotional or otherwise, is that “I hoped his wealth might provide me with a distraction, but this backfired—it left me with no unfulfilled urges but the sexual.” In 1900, it might have been very hard to “fulfill” sexual urges, but today that is not the case, and someone so single-mindedly focused on sex doesn’t need to be and shouldn’t be married. The “wealth” doesn’t seem to matter to her: other than name-checking one or two luxury items, money doesn’t seem to matter for Celeste. Explaining her husband to her teenage lover, she “didn’t have to feign indifference” and tells him “He’s just a husband.” Why bother? When Humbert Humbert married, he at least had a reason.
To be sure people are rarely fully rational and most of us are riven by conflicting desires, by Celeste’s desire to marry or stay marry makes little sense at the beginning of the novel and less as it goes on. Ford’s presence offers useful plot mechanic friction.
A novel like Dare Me works more effectively than Tampa because its protagonists are supposed to be vacuous twits. A twenty-six-year old with a classics degree, even a very horny one, should have more going on between her ears than Celeste does, and what’s between her ears shouldn’t harm what’s going on between her legs. She says, for example, that “At university I began throwing myself into classics studies, finding brief solace from my sexual frustrations in texts depicting ancient battles of fervent bloodshed.” But for someone interested in classics, she references them very rarely; her studies seem to have left no mark in her mind. Contrast that with a novel like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, where Greek appears and an obsession with the past fuels the characters’ actions in the present. Those are characters whose thought is fully colored by classics. Here, classics get mentioned as empty window dressing, like material objects.
Toni Bentley deals with the money issue in The Surrender, her memoir of anal sex, where she says:
You let a man into your bowels—your deepest space, the space that all your life you are taught to ignore, hide, keep quiet about—and consciousness is born. Who needs diamonds, pearls, and furs? Those who’ve never been where I have been. The promised land, the Kingdom.
In asking “Who needs diamonds, pearls, and furs?”, she could be speaking for Celeste, who is also indifferent-seeming to possessions because she has her own “promised land,” albeit of a different though even more forbidden sort than Bentley’s (I say “even more forbidden” because while Bentley’s favorite act used to be illegal, it now mostly isn’t; while Celeste’s used to be not prosecuted, these days it is, thanks to feminists seeking equality in an instance where many teenage boys would probably be happy without it).
There are bizarrely hilarious moments in Tampa, as when Celeste narrates:
Sex struck me as a seafood with the shortest imaginable shelf life, needing to be peeled and eaten the moment the urge ripened. Even by sixteen, seventeen, it seemed that people became too comfortable with their desires to have any objectivity over their vulgar moments. They closed their eyes to avoid awkward orgasm faces, slipped lingerie made for models and mannequins onto wholly imperfect bodies.
Actually, sex is not at all like sea food in the sense Celeste describes, but we do see how Celeste totally misconceptualizes the world and thus a lot about her own, non-universal, proclivities. She also asks rhetorically, “Why did anyone pretend human relationships had value?”, when the better question is why she pretends they do, since most of us who aren’t sociopaths have obvious, readily available answers. Yet the metaphor is compelling, like enough of the writing in Tampa to make the book writing about. There are interesting questions about the extent to which desire clouds judgment, but that assumes the characters have any kinds of judgment in the first place, and the ones in Tampa mostly don’t.
Like Humbert Humbert, her obvious antecedent and another character with desire problems, Celeste is obsessed with guys on the cusp of manhood, and her chosen crush gets described in ways similar to Humbert’s nymphets: “I loved the lanky-limbed smoothness, the plasticity of his limbs, the way his frame shunned both fat and muscle.” The alliteration is there, but that kind of poetic style isn’t sustained. There is room in literature for a female Humbert, but she is not Celeste, and Jack is not Dolly. It is a novel with no animating soul beyond the purely carnal. I can appreciate the purely carnal but Celeste doesn’t even both arranging her life in ways that make sense (which may be why carnality is so often depicted in adolescents, who are still faced with strictures of schools and parents).
It is painful reading a book in which there is an obvious solution to an obvious problem that the protagonist doesn’t notice; Celeste’s situation in Tampa doesn’t rise to the TV trope “Too Dumb to Live,” but there should be a lesser term for characters who fail to perceive simple ways of dramatically improving their lots. In addition, Ford appears happy not having sex with—or having bad sex with—his wife. Marrying someone hot but sexually uninteresting doesn’t seem like a great deal, but we see little of him either.
I wanted Tampa to be a better novel; it wasn’t bad yet it feels wrong. I’m writing at length about the book because it’s not badly written and has a lot of promise. Tampa is not bad but should be better than it is. Books like that often generate the most response in me, because truly bad books aren’t worth bothering about and one runs out of empty superlatives with the good ones. There is so much promise, but Tampa isn’t quite executed in a way that makes sense. The supposed shock of what Celeste wants is a good premise that doesn’t go anywhere useful.