At the end of the twentieth century Bret Easton Ellis gave us Patrick Bateman, a slickly conceived sociopath, masked behind a sharp suit and artfully-formatted business card. In 2013, down in Florida, Alissa Nutting conjures up a new lawless icon of American modern fiction. In Celeste Price, a remorseless paedophile hidden behind a toned body, red convertible and carefully-applied mascara, we witness the type of conflict that certainly isn’t new in fiction – but as the walls between public persona and private desire gradually fall to fragments, Nutting uses her fearless satire to delve into a form of sexuality that remains very much a taboo.
The novel’s impeccably plucked and preened protagonist is fashioned upon Debra Lafave, a former classmate of Nutting who, after a sexual relationship with a pupil, was convicted in 2005 on charges of lewd and lascivious battery but escaped jail on account of being “too pretty for prison“. Celeste echoes a number of her inspiration’s biographical characteristics: she’s beautiful, she’s married and she teaches at a secondary school in Florida, a location that’s handy for this book’s wickedly homophonous title.
That said, Celeste is also a shamelessly fictional construct, absorbed in cultural ideas of desire. In Tampa, Nutting twists Lafave’s status as an English teacher to craft a new hyper-fictionality for her central character. Fitting neatly into the well-carved fantasy motif of sexy school-teacher, Celeste references Elizabeth Báthory, the countess who was said to have bathed in the blood of virgins, speculating that “having sex with teenagers was the only way to keep the act wholesome.” She imagines adolescents violently escaping her husband’s body, in a fantasy bearing “the feel of Greek Myth”. Later, she pictures rival boys on “the dirt floor of a Roman coliseum, fighting to the death so I could copulate with the winner”.
At times, such Classical allusions work to foreground the narrator’s relentless delusion. Celeste is speeding through a life of which she longs to be the author, using a cocktail of drugs to skip out the chapters where her husband casually rapes her, and clinging on to established stories to bring her morally unjustifiable actions into a more comfortable discourse. At other points, these metafictional elements remind us that Nutting is the true manipulator: this story, after all, is nothing more than a work of fiction, and so while our central character muses over the meaning of her victim’s appellation (“I hope that Jack Patrick’s two first names meant he was two boys in one”), we are urged to contemplate the allegorical suggestions behind “Celeste Price” – a heavenly voice brought to justice.
When Nutting passes the reins to Celeste, our narrator is a master of manipulation, simultaneously mocking every individual in her life who isn’t a teenaged boy and maintaining a relatable, friendly tone with her reader. It’s important to the narrative that we join the long line of individuals enthralled by her various charms, and so the true thrust of this text lusts after the villain as much as her victims. The descriptions of Celeste’s body are rather graphic: before meeting her class, Celeste takes “pains to set [herself] up perfectly, inside and out, like a model home ready for viewing.” Locating herself near air conditioning units so that her nipples harden, and letting down her hair suggestively as her victim first answers the register, Celeste makes sure that her sexual appeal to us is as brazen as the boys’ burgeoning erotic allure is to her.
Unable to escape the power of one of her earliest sexual encounters, Celeste cultivates a stunted preoccupation with the present. Taking “precautionary botox” in salons that silently remind her that “everything on you will one day sag”, and shying away from conversations that touch on the longevity of her juvenile relationships, Celeste is in constant pains to forget “that our bodies and everything we’d each ever known, would all inevitably decay and fall apart”. The narrative leer latches onto the young, so that both Celeste and her victims are idealised for their soft skin, eventually enabling Celeste to use her “doe-eyed” youthfulness to escape a firmer sentence. As she treads these parallels and paradoxes, Nutting delivers a commendable dedication to a less than savoury mind, tapping into the Western obsession with youth and beauty with a devilish, spirited bite.
Review due to be published by Vhcle Magazine (vhcle.com)