The Binding Chair or, A Visit From the Foot Emancipation Society , by Kathryn Harrison. Random House, 312 pages, $24.95.
Fans of Kathryn Harrison will find her new novel no less lush and highly scented than Poison , and no less of a shocker than her best-selling memoir, The Kiss . It almost goes without saying that The Kiss describes Ms. Harrison’s love affair with her father, since its success, and the surrounding controversy, have made “incest” and “Kathryn Harrison” linked terms, like the three things everyone knows about Virginia Woolf: madness, suicide, an eye for the girls. The Binding Chair , like Poison , deals with the restraints imposed on women of good breeding. It is the story of a beautiful and cunning Chinese woman, born in 1877, whose feet were bound in childhood.
Foot-binding is a glorious metaphor for the subjugation of women: The toes are folded under toward the heel and wrapped in a series of progressively tighter bandages, until the foot is bent in half–a shape idealized as a “fragrant lotus.” The lucky woman possessing such lotuses is hobbled, and must wear supportive bindings for the rest of her life.
Ms. Harrison wallows happily in the many degrading images this ancient feminizing ritual calls forth. On the first night after the crippling procedure is initiated, for instance, the young Chao-tsing begs her father for help. He rebukes her. “Who, or what, could have inspired such impertinent hopes in a daughter?” her father reflects angrily. “Was not suffering the lot of females? After all, he himself enjoyed marriage to a nimble and delicate woman–a woman whose whole foot he could take into his rectum, even as her left hand cupped his testicles, her right squeezed the shaft of his penis, and her mouth wet his glans.” Chao-tsing looks forward to a life of similar nuptial delights, until the death of her wealthy father changes everything. She is swiftly married off to a cruel silk merchant, in the manner of scary fairy tales.
After several suicide attempts, Chao-tsing escapes to Shanghai and becomes a prostitute, teaching herself European languages and history, and renaming herself May, for “May-li,” which means “beautiful.” Eventually she attracts an admirer, Arthur Cohen, who approaches her with a lecture on the evils of foot-binding and ends in erotic thrall to her plump and fragrant lotuses. “The tiny foot in his hand shape-shifted,” writes Ms. Harrison. “One minute it repelled him, the next it seemed suddenly to express the beauty of the whole female body. Wasn’t it all there, in May’s foot? The smooth white of her neck, the curve of her breast and hip, the crook of her smallest finger, the delicate, mauve folds of her most intimate places.” Forced to retire from the Foot Emancipation Society, Arthur proposes 37 times before May accepts him.
May’s tale is interlaced with that of her beloved niece, Alice, the daughter of Arthur’s sister, whose life could have been May’s if she had not been born 30 years later to Western parents. While May was stifled, Alice is petted and indulged. After the death of her parents, she is left rich and free: a modern woman. She embarks on a series of love affairs with men who resemble Captain Litovsky, a deranged Russian officer whom she met on a train as a child. In his grief, he mistook her for his own lost daughter.
After dwelling on incest for most of her writing life, Ms. Harrison is not about to let it go. There is an unwholesome aura surrounding Captain Litovsky, although like other fathers in this novel, he is curiously inert. His passion for his dead daughter Olga has to be dusted off every 80 pages or so, like a museum exhibit, and can hardly compete with the effortless exoticism and perversity of May. This is not a politically correct fable, but a late, unexpected flowering of the Orientalism of Flaubert and Huysmans. All the sensual satisfactions are on offer, from the opium-laden air May exhales to the fetid bandages she unwraps from her feet. At night, when she has trouble sleeping, May consoles herself by recalling her one act of vengeance against the grandmother who bound her feet and arranged her miserable marriage. Before her escape to Shanghai, she had broken into her grandmother’s house and opened the special chest in which Yu-ying kept her red silk sleeping shoes: “favorites saved from all the years of her grandmother’s marriage. Shoes decorated with birds and flowers, with symbols for life and health and fecundity. Shoes embroidered with gold thread and pearls. Shoes bearing little bells on their pointed toes…. Shoes that had been squeezed and bitten and licked, whose linings had been wet with tears and with wine and with semen.” With the knife she used to groom her feet, May shredded the little slippers, then pissed on the heap of torn red silk and replaced it in the drawer.
The Binding Chair is composed in long, lyrical fragments, gliding back and forth in time, and picking up characters and story lines with an internal logic that can seem like the workings of a Chinese box. Once in a while an authorial voice pipes in, and we learn the fate of a character who has disappeared from the action, such as Captain Litovsky. He crosses Alice’s mind in 1926 and she idly wonders if he is dead. “Yes, in fact,” the next paragraph opens, conveniently describing his death of influenza in the epidemic of 1918. More successful are the rich descriptive passages, especially of street scenes, costumes and interiors, the past as another world, linked to the present by a few stray anachronisms, like May’s bound and useless feet.
For the unwary, it should be disclosed that Ms. Harrison’s new novel is both a serious work of fiction and a catalogue of horrors. Suffice it to say that a scene in which a woman nibbles a few toes off her newborn daughter is not the most shocking thing in the book. After the sixth or seventh stunner, the reader develops a certain edginess, followed by helpless hilarity, as anyone who has seen an uncensored version of Titus Andronicus on stage can attest. Toward the end of The Binding Chair , having nearly exhausted her stock of startling acts and images, Ms. Harrison actually invents a new body fluid. It is worth reading to this point solely to experience the spine-tingling sensation of true innovation, and to picture the author laughing as she wrote.
Kathryn Harrison’s previous novels have already established her as an exceptionally, almost ridiculously gifted writer, whose cool, well-crafted sentences conceal their emotional message until some small detail–a sigh, a ripple of water–tips the author’s hand. In The Binding Chair , she has managed to resurrect the illicit–a remarkable achievement in the Age of Consent–and to mark again her thundering talent and her twisted sensibilities.