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

article bookreview rose A Novel of Brotherly Betrayal,   By a Sexpert on Family MattersEnvy, 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.