A Novel of Brotherly Betrayal, By a Sexpert on Family Matters

Envy, by Kathryn Harrison. Random House, 301 pages, $24.95. “Can it be true that all of Will’s patients are consumed by the topic of sex? Getting it. Not getting it. Getting it, but not enough of it. Getting it but not It. Coming, not coming, coming too soon, coming too late. Coming, but only under certain highly specific circumstances …. “

Well, whether or not Will’s patients are consumed by sex, Kathryn Harrison’s research into the subject continues unabated. Eight years after she set off shock wavelets with her autobiographical description of father-daughter incest in The Kiss, Ms. Harrison resumes the succulent munching of forbidden fruit in her new novel, Envy. Quadruple betrayal sounds like a surgical procedure; in fact, it’s the stuff of a rich and complex summer read.

It begins, innocently enough, when mild-mannered psychotherapist Will (“I over-analyze when I’m threatened”) Moreland trots off to his college reunion (Cornell, Class of ’79), where he badgers an old flame about whether he might be the father of her daughter. Back in the office, he feels himself more than ever subject to “lust attacks” that are as random as they are virulent. This being a Kathryn Harrison novel-where sex is never just sex-we’re invited to explore the deeper thing it stands for. Is it “a manifestation of his guilt over [his son] Luke’s drowning and his desire to be punished, revealed as a danger, humiliated by his peers”? Or “an escape route from his hyper-intellectualizing everything”? Or an assault on his rather opaque wife’s unavailability?

Enter a new patient whose man-eating sexuality puts all to the test. That the youthful seducer is not well manicured but a nail-biter with “gnawed strawberry hulls” only adds to her allure: In conjunction with her stained coat and unkempt hair, it gives her sexuality an unexpectedly squalid, self-devouring edge, especially when Will gets close enough to see that her nails are “bitten to the point of injury” so that her fingertips seem less chewed than “burned by corrupt explorations.”

Who could compete with this? Certainly not the women at the health club, who are “clothed by [their] musculature” so that they’re “not naked. Not really. Their clothes are off, but they’ve created a kind of uniform out of their bodies. They’re so aggressively trained and toned that they’ve conformed to an established, standard shape.” Young Jennifer’s heat is way hotter.

Before you can say “counter-transference,” patient has therapist on his back in the steamiest female-on-male rape scene since …. Well, put it this way: After reading it, I felt guilty and chastened both, as though I’d not only cheated on my wife but gotten my comeuppance, too. Mind what beach you read this on.

But Ms. Harrison has only begun to toy with us. To avoid giving anything away, let’s just say she maneuvers us into the same boat she was steering when she wrote The Kiss. Because we get no warning, we feel as implicated as Will does, and in a similar state of shock: “What he’s done-what he may have done-reduces adultery, only this morning a significant sin, almost to a marital misdemeanor.”

Envy is rife with the manipulations of a fiendish plot-weaver. It’s not so easy for the reader to cluck disapproval after Ms. Harrison has seduced us along with her protagonist, condemning us to “a sickening emotional arc”-“from horror to anger to shame and then back.” Not many writers have the guts or the gift to take us on this Tilt-a-Whirl of illicit sexual emotions, making the unspeakable not only speakable but entirely plausible.

Will has an estranged twin brother, a half-sympathetic, half-diabolical character who has taken refuge from a facial stain (a “livid splash of purple” that gives him the yin-yang appearance of a superhero) by developing himself into an Olympic swimmer. Stung by a lifetime’s injustice of facing “an ideal version of himself” across the playground and dining-room table, it turns out that this “spectral celebrity” has taken liberties, shall we say, with the women in Will’s past, including Will’s wife-the night before the wedding. Was it “an act of hatred? Of desperation? Would it even be possible to parse out one from the other?”

And then it gets better. I mean, worse. Faced with his newfound knowledge, Will can’t think straight: “Thoughts don’t proceed in logical argument; they ricochet around inside his skull, cracking into one another like pinballs and destroying every coherent mental construction in their path.” (It’s billiard balls, not pinballs, that crack into one another; Will is so addled that his author can’t distinguish pinball from pool.) Ms. Harrison has hit upon something more biblically abhorrent even than incest: She’s discovered brotherly betrayal, an archetypal transgression intimately associated with the word blazoned on the cover of this novel. “Envy” touches the nerve that drives Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Will and his cold-blooded fish of a brother. They’re all at swim in an Olympic-sized pool of sin, and such is the tidal force of this novel that we’re right in there, dog-paddling with them.

This is a fast read, but beneath the surface excitement, the core issues of trust and betrayal stand up well to close scrutiny. The characters rehash events, not in a Rashomon-like way so that new information is added with each retelling, but merely to chew the information over and over and thereby normalize it. This too is part of the author’s gifted deviousness. Her language throughout is sensually cerebral: coffeemakers that brew “with a congested noise,” love that is like water in “assuming the shape of the vessel, always imperfect, that holds it.” Her use of exclamation marks instead of question marks-“Revenge! For what! Revenge for what!”-makes for a maddened kind of utterance that nails the state of mind wherein a character knows but can’t accept the answer. She captures the cadences of domestic turbulence better than Edward Albee ever did, not only the physical descriptors (one character seeks the most terrible truths “with her face in her hands, the way someone might cradle an aching jaw”) but also in the breathless manner her characters cut each other off-overlap-interrupt-circle back. The dash never has it so good as when Kathryn Harrison sits down to type.

It goes without saying, of course, that she has boundary issues. None of her characters have ever heard of the concept of T.M.I. (too much information). Do real-life fathers talk about whom they’re “boffing” with their offspring, or ask them if an extramarital kiss entailed tongue? Borderline inappropriateness is a given in a book by Ms. Harrison, and it’s alarming how quickly we get used to it. We’re not jarred when Will tells his dad that he gets a “physical response” to his female patients or acknowledges that during a hug, he’s “keenly conscious of his father’s body and the comfort it offered him.” We scarcely blink when, in return, father tells son that his latest affair has inspired him to “upgrade [his] underwear” and confesses that he can’t always “muster [himself] for the job at hand.”

The question is: Do we accept all this because, after 10 psyche-shattering books, Ms. Harrison has debauched us by now? Or is it because we recognize that she’s communicating something important? Here’s what she’s telling us, in book after book, and it’s why we forgive and even celebrate her, lurid trappings and all: Our strengths are always our undoing, and to be quintessentially human is to be “intelligent, but not enough to understand; awake, but not enough to be entirely conscious. Filled with love, but not enough to overcome fear. Made in the image of God, perhaps, but, if so, like a fifth-generation photocopy, or the fax of a fax of a fax, so that even the outline is approximate.”

Daniel Asa Rose reviews books regularly for The Observer.