Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins
Lolita was the first book I read that was literature with a capital L. I was really young; maybe 12 or 13, and my parents trusted me enough not to censor me. I didn’t pick up Lolita because of its infamous repute or hoping to get some salacious content. It just had a pretty name, and in childish vanity, I thought it quite similar to my own. When I began to read it, I kept reading because the writing was beautiful. For the first time, I was reading something that was elegant and articulate as well as seductive. Even now, I can’t pick it up casually because I’ll distract myself too much. The first time, I understood the conflict at the heart of the novel as such Humbert Humbert, despite his good looks, charming manners, and persuasiveness, is a monster, made more monstrous because he forces the reader to wear his mask and sympathize with him. I reread Lolita every few years because each re-reading reflects something new to me, something I couldn’t fathom before: oppression in a personalized and completely dehumanizing way, love that deceives itself in believing it is love, and obsession. Lolita, so lovely and tragic and eternally youthful, changes every time I read her.
“Lolita” today is a term for a “sexually precocious young woman”. It’s a fashion and the hook to a popular song by Lana del Rey. This kind of titled obsession is unique to the pairing of older men to young women. But what about its gender reversal? There’s the rise and proliferation of the “cougar” (on campus we even have a cougar formal) but the whole tone we bring to this area is one of jokiness and disbelief.
During the empty days of fall break, I cracked open a literary response (sequel?) to Lolita. The 2013 novel Tampa, inspired by the recent spate of arrests of female teachers, brings Lolita into the modern era. In this age rife with sex scandals, it isn’t simply young women who find themselves uncomfortably sexualized. Tampa places itself in the shoes of a figure only minimally explored—a beautiful sexually deviant woman.
Tampa, “the most controversial book of the summer,” follows Lolita’s footsteps of obsession and destruction. But its hook is the reversal of gender norms. Instead of a man obsessed with a young female, it’s a woman, Celeste, who has dedicated her life to satisfying her pedophilia—specifically for 14 year old boys. She marries money to support her habit and becomes, alarmingly, a middle-school teacher to find the perfect target. One of the reasons I kept reading Tampa was the narrator’s searing voice; she criticizes the youth-obsessed society that drives her to care meticulously for her face and body, but youth is the foundation for her desires.
The book is flawed for a lot of reasons, its satire grows tired by the half, we wonder the motivations of her young victims, crazy sex isn’t enough to continue the whole narrative, and the sudden shift towards the dramatic is too quick to be believable, but it has a great premise. In Celeste’s mind, she is not a pedophile but a person who is merely at a mismatched age—on the physical level she still looks young. Why is this wrong? For some reason, we cannot place the lens of rape on a young man, or rather, a boy. If she’s beautiful, he’s lucky. A mark of pride is how young a man is when he loses his virginity but how young is too young? Tampa gives us two victims, Jack and Boyd. One of the book’s few emotional moments is when Jack, called to testify for Celeste’s trial, looks at her and realizes all the boundaries she has transgressed and all the mistakes they’ve committed. While Lolita gave us a villain at the end of his game, Celeste—due to our society’s biases towards women and physical beauty—is set free. Tampa ends as she begins her journey of predation again.
Tampa, for all its flaws, presents a tragedy we dismiss as a joke or mere misconduct. Fall break left me wondering about the crimes we refuse to acknowledge. We shape and destroy male sexuality with a lot of ease. There’s a push to constantly explore and exceed sexual boundaries and always with the obsession on youth. With societal pressures, we push people only to punish them when they transgress too far. How young is too young?