As the author of six novels and five nonfiction works, Kathryn Harrison has two distinct identities in the literary world. She is perhaps best known for her memoir The Kiss (1997), a devastating account of a family triangle involving Harrison, her elusive mother, and her absent father, who only entered the author's life when she was twenty, and then seduced her into a four-year affair. For the past fifteen years, Harrison has also enjoyed a remarkable career as both a historical and a contemporary novelist; she is as assured describing the inside of a nineteenth-century Shanghai brothel as she is evoking a crystal meth–driven shoplifting spree in Manhattan's Bergdorf Goodman department store. Her ability to train an unflinching eye on some of the more frightening aspects of eroticism and the human psyche, combined with her uncommon wisdom, distinguishes her as one of the finest and most fearless storytellers writing today.
Envy (Random House) is Harrison's first novel with a contemporary setting since Exposure (1993), and her second to feature a male protagonist. Set in the Brooklyn brownstone neighborhood of Park Slope, the novel depicts the midlife crisis of psychiatrist Will Moreland, a man whose ten-year-old son has recently died in a boating accident. His grief is wreaking havoc on his marriage and his libido, as well as dredging up unresolved business with his estranged twin brother, Mitch, who hasn't spoken to him since the night of Will's wedding.
Late in March, Harrison came over to my Park Slope apartment, not far from her own house—it's the neighborhood we both call home. In talking about the new novel, we touched on the potential dangers of the therapist's office for both the client and the shrink, and the way women can win the battle for power between the sexes. Then we broached the topic of book reviewers: Harrison revealed herself to be as honest as she is gracious, even when discussing one of her fiercest critics for the first time in print. —KERA BOLONIK
Bookforum: Grief is the catalyst for Will Moreland's unraveling, after he loses his son, Luke, in a drowning accident. But envy seems to further propel his crisis. It bonds him with his twin brother, Mitch, a world-champion long-distance swimmer. He's also jealous of an old lover he runs into at a college reunion, who has a daughter that may or may not be his. And he envies his wife, Carole, her ability to grieve privately and calmly.
KATHRYN HARRISON: And he also envies his father, who seems to handle life with much more grace than Will. I titled the book after I'd finished it. I didn't set out to write a book about envy, so Envy was more an instinctive than a conscious choice. I'm not sure how strictly realistic my novels are. Mitch, whom we never see, is less a real person than a doppelgänger for Will. Will is cerebral; Mitch is all body. Mitch's face is disfigured; Will's isn't. Mitch never appears, but he's talked about a lot and he's a very powerful presence.
BF: And submerged in water.
KH: Yes, swimming in the unconscious, if you will. Of course the book has a lot to do with psychoanalysis, and is about betrayal as much as envy. Betrayal would have been an adequate title—it's sexy. But it's not quite as sexy and final and sad as envy.
BF: Envy evokes grief. I suppose betrayal does, too.
KH: But envy is more active, dangling possibility as if something's still in play, whereas with betrayal, the story is over.
BF: Losing a child has a destructive impact on Will and Carole's sex life. She won't face him anymore while having sex or allow him to pleasure her. The deprivation feels punitive, as if Carole is telling him that he doesn't deserve to experience joy. He believes she blames him for their son's accident.
KH: He believes this partly because he's riddled with guilt. He says of his wife, "It's as if I'm just this guy who happens to be attached to this dildo she's using." She's not really present when they have sex. And she's always so serene, so good at repelling any of his observations or attempts to penetrate her on any level other than sexually. As a result, he's always wondering how much of it is in his head and how much of it truly exists.
BF: Is he displacing his desire to win back Carole's trust by, paradoxically, fantasizing about his clients? Sex would seem to require a component of vulnerability for him, as if he had to resolve something for someone else.
KH: There is displacement of his desire for Carole, and also I think sex is a natural response to bereavement. They say people often go home and fuck after funerals. What mortal response does Will have to death, other than using his body to affirm life? Also, he's stuck in that spot where he's not getting the emotional consummation that he wants from sex with his wife, and thus is left in a constant state of desire and neediness. There's a lot more to sex than fucking.
BF: If that's all it was, he'd be satisfied with his situation with Carole.
KH: In that sense, he's sort of like the character Bigelow from my last novel, The Seal Wife.
BF: That novel's set in 1915 in Anchorage; Bigelow's a weatherman obsessed with
a mute Aleutian woman. He proves that yearning to connect with the unapproachable woman is as old as time itself.
KH: Bigelow was tortured because she made herself so unavailable to him. I think women are very good at shutting men out in a mean way, removing themselves from their bodies. In the eternal power game between the sexes, men are capable of physically brutalizing women, but women are more emotionally devious. They're inclined to punish men in ways that are so passive—so much more about absence than aggression—that it's impossible to fight back.
BF: This is your second novel to feature a male protagonist. Why did you decide to tell Will's story, and not Carole's?
KH: It's too easy for me to be a woman on the page. Being inside a guy's head is totally different, so it's more challenging, and more fun. That's the cerebral answer. The truer answer is that the position of the tormented man trying to break through to a withholding woman is deeply familiar to me, because it is a trope for my relationship with my mother. As a child, the focus of my desire was a cool, emotionally mute woman who always managed to elude both my touch and my understanding. I wanted to know my mother, but I couldn't. So I know what it's like to be rebuffed by a female object of desire.
BF: Jennifer is a new client who upends Will's world. He's vulnerable, and this young, smart-as-hell, rock-chick vixen comes in with tales of her raunchy exploits that send him reeling. In a weird way, he desperately needs a catalyst like her.
KH: Jennifer is delightful because she is amoral and has no sense of shame and gets away with everything. You rarely encounter such a person in a book. When you do, she usually gets punished. But not Jennifer. She cuts a swath through people's lives and moves on—she is a force of nature! If you've ever been a patient, you realize what's possible in that room, in terms of what you can say, which is anything. It's potentially complicated and very risky in there, and not just for the patient. For those who go for an hour
of handholding, it can be the most pedestrian experience. But when it's
real, the transactions are astonishing.
BF: What is it about eroticism that you are trying to resolve through your writing? All of your novels are concerned in some way with its power, and the perils.
KH: Whether it is conscious or unconscious, I find myself trying to correct the incredibly vanilla standards of what our culture considers attractive, because I find them to be so lifeless and plastic. What is erotic is often surprising, alive, offbeat, and weird—and very individual. In The Binding Chair, an Australian Jewish philanthropist named Arthur Cohen unexpectedly falls for May, the very woman he had intended to save and reform. He is drawn to her bound feet, which he never imagined possible. He sees them unwrapped—people are never really allowed to see them unwrapped—and they're not pretty. But pretty doesn't factor in eroticism. Eroticism is the opposite of pretty, just as a beautiful woman is not a pretty woman, because beauty depends on an edge of
ugliness. Eroticism is animal, instinctive.
BF: After Luke's death, Will's father, Henry, takes up photography. Is this his way of grappling with loss, making things constant and immortal by seizing them on film?
KH: Aren't most human endeavors a response to the consciousness of mortality? With photography, on some level you can seize and fix a moment and have it forever. There are other ways to record a moment—you can write about it, or paint it—but a camera seems to promise actually keeping the moment itself. Ultimately photography is no more or less adulterated than other art forms, but it gives the illusion of being more real.
BF: In nearly every one of your novels, the protagonist is either unable to have a child or loses one. Envy is the first novel to feature a protagonist with a surviving child. Will and Carole still have their daughter, Samantha.
KH: [laughs] Apparently I've reached a point of optimism!
BF: You have three great, healthy kids that you've written about in your essay collection, Seeking Rapture, so devoted readers recognize that this fear isn't drawn from your personal experience. What is it about this theme that has you writing about it over and over?
KH: Nothing in my personal reproductive life has been in any way disappointing or traumatic. But I'm scared of happiness, and health, and stability. I'm always aware of how much I can lose. And once you have a child, you can't imagine existing on the other side of losing that child. Is it possible to survive such an event? I drop one of my kids off at school and think, Today's the field trip to Staten Island. Hmm. Bus. Bridge. And my mind starts spinning: What's going to happen? In all likelihood, nothing. But every day is a leap of faith. Here are these creatures that were once inside your body, then held in your arms, and then you're expected to entrust them to other, seemingly responsible grown-ups. They might do their best, but there's fate. The world acts upon them.
BF: You've written three historical novels. In fact Envy is the first present-day novel you've written since Exposure. How does the writing process differ?
KH: One process sort of relieves the other. It's both more complicated and simpler to work on a book set in another time and place. We tend to confuse historical fiction with history. But it's far less factual than you might imagine, because a writer uses the past as a canvas onto which she can project her own, necessarily contemporary concerns. A novel set in the present doesn't involve the same kind of research, but you do have to find a way to gain perspective on your own time, which is difficult. Of course, research is something I enjoy because it puts off the act of writing. And it's fun. I don't read many historical novels. One of the problems with a lot of historical fiction is that if it's not a bodice ripper, it's often a novel that's top-heavy with research. If I'm following a character through a building in the pages of a novel, I don't want to know the history of the Otis elevator.
BF: I have to admit that I skim over those long, arduous passages. I really just want to know the people.
KH: When you write something set in the past, you may end up using only 5 percent of the facts you've worked so hard to gather. So if writers tend to overexplain,
I think it's because it's painful to do all of that work only to find that 95 percent of it was about getting to a point of adequate self-confidence. Too much information doesn't lend credibility—it actually undermines it. If I were writing about going to the gym, I wouldn't give you a history of the iPod. The iPod would simply be plugged in to my ears. I'd make a quick reference that wouldn't require an explanation. When I do research, I want to get to a place where I feel confident enough to exist in that world without feeling anxious that I don't know what's going on.
BF: A. L. Kennedy, in a recent interview in these pages, said that while writing fiction she could be more emotionally revealing than when writing memoir. You've written four memoirs, and your first novel, Thicker Than Water, is very close to the story in your first memoir, The Kiss. I recently reread Thicker Than Water and found it more intense and disturbing than the memoir.
KH: It is both intentionally and unintentionally more revealing than nonfiction. When I described my grandparents in Thicker Than Water, for example, I depicted my grandmother as being really tall and my grandfather as a diminutive man. In fact the opposite was true, but in terms of the force of their personalities, my grandmother was the larger figure. On the other hand, one of the motivations for writing The Kiss was that I had fictionalized the story. Because Thicker Than Water was a typically autobiographical first novel, with aspects changed around and disguised, I felt disappointed in it and in myself: I knew that there was a story that was real and one that needed to be owned. To novelize a story of incest is to participate in the societal imperative to always lie about it, to say it's not happening, or that you made it up. For that reason, I wanted to disown that novel as soon as it was published. The Kiss is intentionally stripped-down because I wanted to reveal that archetypal triangle of the parents and the child. The shell-shocked, present-tense narration reveals some of the experience of being in a relationship like that, in which you are in a kind of cottony, emotionally vacant state—it's the only way you get through things like that. In a sense, the books are separate truths that, in the end, complement each other.
BF: A lot of reviewers were merciless when The Kiss came out. Most of the memoir—and Thicker Than Water for that matter—evokes the experience of a child being deprived of something as primal as parental love. Some of the reviews bypassed this and made a beeline for the more "sensational" aspects, taking you to task for being twenty when your father seduced you, and questioning the veracity of your story and your motive for writing it. They judged you personally and invited readers to do the same.
KH: It's the power of taboo. It's almost like an autoimmune response. As you know, certain critics were venomous, mean in a way that has nothing to do with book criticism. But the publication of The Kiss was disillusioning in the best sense. It was painful at first, but ultimately useful in that it stripped away naive fantasies that I'd had. Going into publication, I imagined that some people would be angry with me for who I was and what I'd done, and I could accept that because I'd been angry with myself.
BF: Did readers initially presume that someone had molested you as a child?
KH: Maybe. But isn't it reductive, even silly, to limit the age at which it's possible to be abused by a parent? To say, if you're under eighteen you're a kid, and if you're over eighteen, you're not? In relation to your parents, you're always a child. And I was naive about the media. I genuinely believed all journalists were honorable. [laughs] It never occurred to me that I'd be quoted out of context in order to distort my meaning. I wasn't prepared for slander, for people to say, "She did it for the money. Random House paid this huge advance." Random House didn't. They accepted the memoir in lieu of a novel that had been under contract for years, without any extra advance. The one thing that infuriated me was being called a liar. How ironic to finally come clean only to be accused of dishonesty. In the Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley wrote, nastily, "If, by the way, anything herein actually happened as she claims it did. . . ." He also called the book "slimy," "repellent," "meretricious." The fact that the review—plus an Op-Ed piece!—was so hysterical in its hostility turned out to be a saving grace. I mean, a critic has to have an agenda to take the people who blurbed the book to task: Tobias Wolff, Mary Karr, Robert Coles, and Mary Gordon were all sentenced by Yardley to "perdition eternal." In the end it was laughable. But at the time it wasn't very funny.
BF: The experience sounds devastating.
KH: You have a choice to either laugh or cry. I cried before, and now it seems funny. I even look forward to certain events, hoping to meet some of these people and say, "What a pleasure to [laughs] finally look you in the eye." But, in the end, do I give a fuck what any of these people think about me?
BF: I hope not. But for some more careless reviewers, criticism has become a spectator sport. Too many times, we see a critic veer off the page to ream an author for the facts of his or her life.
KH: This is the point that Andrea Dworkin made before The Kiss came out. She said, "It's all very well to say who cares? But in fact people publish lies, and other people will read them, and then other people believe what they tell them. Pretty soon there's a whole group of people who believe something false about you. And that is actual damage." Over time, the junk falls away and things reveal themselves. I have faith in that.