I suspect there might be something inherently unfair in asking about best books any year that J.M. Coetzee has a new novel out. He is truly sui generis and seems to operate at a level that the rest of us can only sort of admire from afar. After the interesting misstep that was Slow Man, he’s returned with the extraordinary Diary of a Bad Year. The book consists of three narratives that share each page: At the top of the page are, in a nod to Nabokov, the protagonist’s “Strong Opinions” – essays on subjects ranging from political life in Australia to al-Qaida. In the second thread, the protagonist “JC”, who bears a striking resemblance to the author, describes his obsession with his beautiful young amanuensis. And the third voice tells that same story from her point of view. The result is an alternating comic and tragic aria for three voices that asks questions no less fundamental than what is it we require of our writers and novels? A painter friend once told me that any serious painter needed to contend with Picasso and Pollock. Anyone who cares for literature must do the same with J.M. Coetzee.
At the end of a year, it’s often hard to remember what I read in the preceding 12 months. This has to do with all the wine I’ve consumed throughout the seasons and the eggnog in which I’m probably swimming for the month of December, but also it has to do with sheer number of the books themselves. I write books. I’m managing editor of Bookslut. I read. A lot. But I’m often left yearning for something more in what I read. I want that kind of indelible experience I used to have with the books that meant something to me long ago — the experience that, the older I get, the less likely I think I’m going to have. But I’m still a reader, so I never stop hoping I’ll come across the book that’s not just going to be one of my favorite novels of the year, but quite possibly one of my favorite novels of life. The book I bring to you at the end of 2013 is nothing if not indelible.
Long after reading it, it’s still inconceivable to me just how good Tampa by Alissa Nutting is. Celeste Price is the kind of narrator whose words you want to keep on your skin forever. And she’s one hell of a protagonist. She’s brilliant. She’s mad (or easily perceived that way). She’s a physically attractive object to the point of paralyzing her onlookers. She’s iconoclastic. She’s funny. She’s an allegory with a little red Corvette, which is probably itself a Northern Floridian metaphor. She’s a teacher in the classroom, but she’s not a didact for the reader. She’s Nabokovian, and not simply because she bangs 14-year-olds. She lives on the page, and yet she’s absolutely, utterly, impossibly real. I couldn’t get her out of my mind after the first sentence.
Tampa really is a joyous and momentous occasion for prose. And yet, of course, some readers haven’t understood it, have declaimed against it — particularly those who haven’t actually read it. A 26-year old teacher — a female teacher, no less — who takes up, unrepentantly, with a 14-year-old boy in her class? Say just that much, and you can already hear the murmurs: On purpose? Well, that’s just terrible. End of story. Lock her up at once. Oh, she’s a character in a novel? In that case, we’d better lock up the book. Because complacency shouldn’t be riled! We’re not supposed to write or read these sorts of things, and if a book does happen to emerge, we must eradicate it at once (by way of repudiation, of course, of course, because free speech, etc.). Critical thought and analysis is reserved for the nice books, the polite books, the books that know their places. As far as the outliers go, we’re supposed to vilify, never empathize. At least that’s how the mass media would have it.
I say, bullshit! Hasn’t it always been the case that art is supposed to make you question your assumptions? And radically so? And really good art takes all of your assumptions away and reinvents you? That’s what Tampa does.
The problem people have with Tampa has nothing to do with the novel, its author, or its characters. The problem people have with this book comes from within. They’re afraid of themselves. Reading a novel like Tampa pretty much forces you to scrutinize the world — and yourself. True art reminds us of us — of what’s right with us and also what’s wrong. And we need it to.
If I could have just one wish this Christmas, it would be for you to read Tampa. But only if you think you’re ready. And I think you are. You’re tired of slogging through the kinds of books that leave faint impressions on you before quickly and permanently disappearing. If you’re lucky, and you let yourself, Tampa might just change your (reading) life.
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