There are certain writers who never go out of style, the types whose work always finds new ways of fitting into the cultural zeitgeist. See F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most recent posthumous rise to the top, or his friend Ernest Hemingway’s transformation into a symbol of the sort of adventurous, fearless, and macho man that doesn’t exist anymore. But the most recent example has to be George Orwell, an author whose work is commonplace in most high school English classrooms. 1984 has seen a 10,000% spike in sales thanks to whistleblower Edward Snowden’s NSA leak. These authors remain timeless, but their relevance might wax and wane as our tastes change. And while there will probably always be people reading The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises, writers more often look to other sources — the Kafkas, the Roths, the Didions, the Bolaños — for their stylistic cues. Many names spark inspiration in contemporary writers, but Vladimir Nabokov’s influence, long after his death in 1977, has helped give us everyone from John Updike and Thomas Pynchon to Zadie Smith and Jeffery Eugenides.
In the works of the Russian-born Nabokov, writers can see not only prose with few equals but also a literary craftsman, a natural writer who left behind a heap of novels and short stories that should be savored by everybody who loves books, something readers can appreciate, and writers wish to emulate. But there is one book that stands above them all, the book considered the magnum opus of an author whose bibliography is among the strongest of the 20th century, 1955’s Lolita. The novel (and subsequent Stanley Kubrick film adaptation) was not just a great work of fiction, but its impact on the culture at large was so great that it gifted us “Lolita” as a descriptor for a seductive young girl. In the last few months alone, two authors have taken Lolita’s formula and reworked it with spectacular results.
Alissa Nutting’s Tampa is already receiving a healthy buzz for the real-life inspiration it takes from the life and times of former teacher and convicted sexual predator Debra Lafave (who Nutting went to school with), and has all the workings of a modern-day Lolita, except it is even more disturbing because of the ways in which it departs from the book’s inspiration. Unlike Humbert Humbert, who was sure that young Dolores Haze was the one seducing him, Celeste Price knows full well that she is the predator in Tampa. She volunteers to teach her classes from a trailer in the back of the school because she can lock the door and turn the air conditioner up high to drown out any sounds. She’s a disturbed person, but one that is quite organized and in control. While Humbert Humbert despised certain American teenage qualities he saw in his Lolita, Celeste relishes them, masturbating while she spies on the object of her affection from her Corvette with tinted windows. Here’s how she differentiates her target, Jack Patrick, from the other potential underage suitors: “Jack proved himself to be far superior to his peers. While others looked upon my chest with a gleeful smirk or pleasant shock, Jack stared in the way one might watch a waterfall,” the narrator says as she schemes to make the 14-year-old boy all hers.
She’s a descendant of Humbert Humbert, sure — but Celeste’s ways, methods, and chilly interiority call to mind an even more recent literary antihero, Bret Easton Ellis’s Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. Every little thing has value to Celeste, and she works in the same methodical fashion as Bateman by thinking through the steps, internalizing the crime she’s about to commit while showing no remorse, and harboring a healthy supply of self-love: Celeste knows she’s beautiful, and staying that way will help her gets what she wants, which in this case is teenage boys.
Tampa might reverse Nabokov’s masterpiece, but Amity Gaige’s Schroder is more a beautifully written homage, less of a traditionally shocking and trangressive book than Nutting’s and Nabokov’s original. Schroder, which received a literary-fiction bingo by nabbing blurbs from both Jonathan Franzen and Jenifer Egan, is the tale of a German-born man named Eric Schroder who changed his last name to the ideally American-sounding Kennedy, as he sits in a correctional facility and recounts everything that led to his incarceration for kidnapping his daughter, Meadow. The kidnapping of a young child by an obsessed European-born father figure smacks of Nabokov’s classic, but the influence is also there in sly, little nods, like when Meadow tells an adult that when she grows up that she wants to be famous for being a lepidopterist — a field that Nabokov contributed to in his lifetime. Gaige’s most pronounced response to her inspiration comes at the climax of the book, when Eric has to bring his daughter to the hospital while they’re on the run with no destination in mind. That scene in Lolita helps Humbert Humbert’s obsession get away from him, unraveling his plan, while Eric bringing Meadow to the hospital is his own undoing, the end of his attempt to hang on to his little girl a little longer.
Although obsession is a common theme in literature, these two recent books truly echo Nabokov’s classic. The tribute not only reminds us of why Lolita remains such a great book, but also, in Nutting’s case, how it takes a truly talented writer to weave the child predator into something more complex than a horror show.
It’s also notable that these two books were written by women, a potential advantage, because post-Nabokov, it’s difficult to fathom a man writing a book that’s so psychologically close to any sexual predator without getting characterized as a creep. That’s the Lolita dilemma: Nabokov already did it, and Nabokov might be the only male author who was capable of depicting such a touchy and disturbing subject with dazzling results. Both Gaige and Nutting may have used Lolita as a jumping off point for great novels that are both beautifully written and hard to put down, but it’s hard to imagine many other authors who could do the same.