(Ecco, 266 pages, $25.99)
The title of Alissa Nutting’s TAMPA might as well have been SHOCK. The very first sentence refers to masturbation. This can be expected from a book that attempts to tell a gender-reversed Lolita, the twist being that Humbert Humbert is here transported into the classroom, in the guise of 28-year-old eighth-grade teacher Celeste Price.
It’s a resemblance the author invokes herself, citing her work as “a contemporary version” of the classic (in this case, about a meek 14-year-old called Jack). What TAMPA misses is Nabokov’s subtlety and complex characterization. There are only so many times a book should say “labia.” Endless robotic descriptions of deviant sexual acts are unnecessary if you flesh out your antihero, and sadly this one is paper-thin.
Of course, the topic is bold, especially for a debut novel, and not easy to write about. Ms. Nutting’s book is helped by bursts of imaginative prose and, at times, biting humor. Her real strengths show toward the end of the book, where circumstances start to reveal a deeper and more nuanced portrait of the protagonist and allow her to describe things other than genitals. The possibility of a second, perhaps less shocking novel from Ms. Nutting is an exciting prospect. —Hugh Bassett
César Aira (translated by Nick Caistor)
(New Directions, 266 pp., $14.95)
Since 1997, César Aira has been translated into English from his native Argentinian at the rate of about a book a year, a prolific task that has already given us stories of a retired miracle cure doctor, a broke Panamanian government employee who ends up writing the greatest of all works of Central American poetry, and a New Year’s Eve dinner party held by a lonely teenage girl and a group of lumbering ghosts. His 70 or so novels have made him one of the most celebrated authors in Latin America.
His latest book, like much of his other works, is an allegory written with a straight face—it is tempting to take it literally. The book follows a 19th-century English naturalist, Clarke, who has organized a hunt for the Legibrerian hare, a bunny rabbit that can fly. Two companions follow him, and the three of them journey through the jungle, talking cyclically about nothing in particular at first, then politics. Eventually Clarke becomes the commander of a native tribe and leads them into war.
If it’s hard to decipher the message of Mr. Aira’s symbolism, that’s also the point. His books often end in a deus ex machina that is highly ridiculous, but, Mr. Aira says, so is spending one’s time writing. Early on in the book, Mr. Aira describes a man downing gin while watching another man write. “He considered it one of the few spectacles with an intrinsic worth, which demanded nothing of the spectator.” That’s only half true. —Michael H. Miller