The New York Times, July 17, 2005    » Visit the original URL for this article
‘Envy’: Don’t Even Try to Analyze This
By Emily Nussbaum

Kathryn Harrison is a wonderful writer. It seems important to get that on the table right away, since for most readers, her name will elicit one fact: Kathryn Harrison wrote a memoir about having slept with her father. Back in 1997, that notoriously hyperpublicized book, “The Kiss” — in which she recounted an affair she had in her 20’s with the father she had not seen since she was a child — set critics scratching furiously at the welts it raised in the culture, largely neglecting the book in the process for its lurid cover story.

In the hubbub, few pointed out that “The Kiss” is a pretty terrific memoir. Poetic and compressed, it is not a pointed finger, or an artless blurt, but a grimly hypnotic horror story, making human what might in other hands seem merely grotesque. That’s Harrison’s particular gift as a writer; and while her output, from memoirs and essays and novels, has been of varying quality, she has continually circled around her central, obsessive themes: narcissism, family violation, sexual taboo and physical suffering. For better or worse, this is a writer who veers toward what others find distasteful; in her novels, she has found parallel torments everywhere in history, from foot-binding in China (“The Binding Chair”) to the Inquisition (“Poison”).

The setting of “Envy” is less exotic. Will Moreland, a New York psychoanalyst, thinks at once too much and too little. His son has died. His twin brother — a world-famous swimmer — is estranged. His wife is distant. In fact, everything in this grief-stained but otherwise normal existence feels a little distant, and Will himself appears, if not precisely unreliable, then slightly clueless. In his struggle to wriggle out from his own anxieties, his remarks can seem like witty meta-comments on the narrative itself: “Yes, he’s obsessed with sex. How else could he escape the inside of his head, where every thought refuses to be fleeting and instead waits its turn to be hyperarticulated, edited, revised and then annotated like some nightmare hybrid of Talmudic commentary and Freudian case study?”

In the spellbinding opening chapters, Will attends his college reunion and confronts an old girlfriend who may or may not have gotten pregnant by him years back. The ex is a grade-A wench, and their run-in is a startling rat-a-tat of mutual accusation. “Ironic that she’d become a dermatologist,” Will thinks. “She’d always had a personality like a rash, itchy, chafing, the kind of woman who just won’t let you get comfortable.” She ends the scene (and it does feel like a scene — the best elements of “Envy” are its most theatrical) with the fair-enough remark, “You are an excellent example of why it is that people think shrinks are nuts.”

The pages that follow ignore this electric showdown, or at least repress it. There’s a lot going on here, perhaps too much: a married couple drifting apart in grief, tension between Will and his philandering father, identical twins with non-identical faces, a patient whose seductive behavior spills insistently over the edges of her shrink’s couch. And despite Will’s agitated attempts to interrogate the meaning of his life, he is surrounded by people who would prefer that he stop his inquiries immediately. As much detective as psychoanalyst, he’s too blinded by overthinking to give in to his own intuition.

Then abruptly, with one traumatic sexual sequence, these disparate story lines cohere to reveal a new pattern: a Rorschach plot, in essence. The book’s muted family problems become elements in a Greekish tragedy, one filled with the tropes of sexual violation for which Harrison is best known. It’s like one of those souvenir 1950’s pens that tilt upside down to strip an innocent cheesecake model to her pornographic double, and Harrison’s witty, lucid, poetic sentences do carry us quite a long way through passages rife with the kind of ickiness bound to alienate some readers and rivet others.

Unfortunately, her consistently skillful descriptions aren’t quite enough to make the novel pay off in the end. As heightened as this hidden plot turns out to be, it is frustratingly formulaic at its deepest level. It’s a dream horror that finally feels all too dreamlike, too embeddedly symbolic to have the pang of real life. And when the villain of the book is unmasked — and there is a villain, as blackhearted as a medieval troll — it’s disappointing to find a sociopath standing behind that particular door. So rank an antagonist renders the whole question of analytical motivation moot: the human flaws of the other characters pale by contrast; their struggles seem weightless next to such grave crimes.

Still, there are standout moments here, mainly in the most chaotic and unmediated confrontations: the sequences, especially, in which a waifish, tattooed, sardonic, compulsively sexual graduate student is transformed into the world’s most disturbing therapy patient. What finally mars the book is Harrison’s abandonment of the tragic mode. After a series of lurid turns that would leave most families in seizures of distress, her characters do not collapse, or brutalize one another. Instead, they fulfill Will’s deepest psychoanalytic desires, and confess — reeling out monologues far less convincing than the showdowns that came before. We are left with the loving attempts of well-meaning people to heal their wounds. In real life, that would be a beautiful ending; but in a novel soaked so deeply in horror, it feels too much like wishful thinking.