Envy: A Novel by Kathryn Harrison. Random House, 2005; $24.95; 301 pages
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
Will, a Brooklyn psychoanalyst and almost-identical twin, has a good sex life-with the woman he married. So why then is he increasingly plagued by violent erotic fantasies that, were they to break out of his imagination and into the real world, have the power to destroy not only his family but his career? He's about to lose his grip when he attends a college reunion and there discovers evidence of a past sexual betrayal, one serious enough that it threatens to overpower the present, even as it offers a key to Will's dangerous obsessions.Hypnotic, beautifully written, this mesmerizing novel by "an extremely gifted writer" (San Francisco Chronicle) explores the corrosive effect of evil -- and how painful psychological truths long buried within a family can corrupt the present and, through courage and understanding, lead to healing and renewal. "Like Scheherazade in the grip of a fever dream, Kathryn Harrison...has written one of those rare books, in language of unparalleled beauty, that affirm the holiness of life," said Shirley Ann Grau, about Poison. And the same can be said about Envy.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
The Boston Globe: Estranged twins, one of them deformed. Grief, betrayal, and deviant sex. Here, in Envy, are the elements of a great Gothic summer read. In the cool, elegant hands of Kathryn Harrison, though, they mark the boundaries of something more complex, though no less entertaining.
Newsday: Will, a married therapist, is tormented to distraction by sexual fantasies, often about his female patients. His marriage has been, in many ways, a happy, even sexy one -- but since the accidental death of their son, Luke, two years ago, Will and his wife, Carole, have been drifting apart. Neither understands the other's response to the tragedy. She wants to send out the family Christmas card as they have every year; he's horrified that she can't recognize that everything has changed. Disturbingly, Carole now refuses to have sex face-to-face.
The couple's life is haunted, as well, by another absence: that of Will's twin brother, Mitch, a world-renowned swimmer. The twins were close as children and looked exactly alike, but Mitch has a birthmark covering much of his face, and Will does not. The characters, their conflicts and their conversations do seem real, and their story, however improbable, will keep you turning the pages.
New York Observer: 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.
The New York Times: 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 hyper-publicized book, The Kiss -- in which she recounted an affair she had in her 20s 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.
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.
The Washington Post: Chances of good literary fiction finding an audience are...damaged when books such as Kathryn Harrison's Envy are published and passed off as worthy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Born in 1961 in Los Angeles and reared there, Ms. Harrison was raised primarily by her maternal grandparents. She received her MFA from the Iowa Writers School. She is the author of the novels The Seal Wife, The Binding Chair, Poison, Exposure: A Novel, and Thicker Than Water. She has also written the memoirs The Kiss and The Mother Knot; a travel memoir, Road to Santiago; a biography, Saint Therese of Lisieux; and a collection of essays, Seeking Rapture: Scenes from a Woman's Life. She lives in New York with her husband, the novelist Colin Harrison, and their three children.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
I asked Ms. Harrison, not a practicing Catholic, how she happened to write the biography of Thérèse de Lisieux for the Penguin Lives series. "The editor of the series called, asking about a possibility of my doing biographies in the series. I was delighted because I thought it was a fun series and people had done some great work in this series. But when he told me who it was -- Thérèse de Lisieux, also known as 'The Little Flower' -- I thought, 'My God.' Because she had in truth been the saint that I had loathed the most growing up (Ms. Harrison attended Catholic school), just because she always seemed like such a 'goody two shoes.'
"'The Little Flower,' the whole thing I found a little nauseating...but I thought about it and then everybody kept saying, 'Oh no, don't do it, don't do it. Oh, don't do it.' For various reasons they said that. 'They don't pay enough for the work,' or, 'You get all bogged down doing the research and it eats up so much time.' And then being perverse I said, 'Yes,' because I thought, 'to loathe someone is to love someone.'
"But soon I was won over to her. I have a picture of her on my wall. She's a very interesting, mysterious person."
Ms. Harrison said that she'd been out of touch with her agent for a while, but her agent mentioned that some reviewers of Envy did not like the book. Most reviewers, she was too modest to say, do admire Envy.
Many reviewers, I said, increasingly seem to confuse the book's author with the book's narrator or any of a number of a book's characters.
"True, and strangely unsophisticated for people who are supposed to be reviewers or critics. I remember when my first novel came out, which was very autobiographical, it was sort of tempting waters about the whole thing. And some guy in the audience at a bookstore saw it, and he asked me, 'What does your father think about this stuff?' I thought, 'Hey, this is a novel. You can't ask me that question. I made the whole thing up, supposedly.'
"But he was totally uninterested in any such distinction. He just kept repeating the question actually until somebody from the bookstore took him away, for which I was very grateful. But, yes, it is peculiar.
"I'm very disappointed when I don't get a couple of reviews that say that I'm twisted or disgraceful or a degenerate in some way, because I'm not interested in writing something that leaves people lukewarm. I've always tended to have people who are either strong supporters or who strongly dislike my work. In the same day, Envy got an amazingly different review in the The New York Observer and The Washington Post. The guy who reviewed it for the Post , I can't remember his name right now, but he basically held me responsible for the decline in literary fiction. And then he went on to renounce me and the book in every possible way."
"I think it's important -- and fun -- for women to break the taboos about how and what women should write. Breaking those taboos can make some readers quite angry."
"I love seeing how angry they get."
"Envy. How did you come up with that title?"
"Well, not for any honorable reason. I think it probably would be better titled Betrayal, but I so clearly remembered that Pinter screenplay. I guess it was a play too with the name; there's something about this stuff that wants to have its cake and eat it too. The book has a fairly suspenseful, even in places sensational plot; it has that 'beach read' quality, so I wanted it to have that kind of title, and Envy seemed to fit the bill. It just popped into my head.
"I title things last and I can't say that I believe I'm very good at it. I don't think it's a strength. I think making up titles and writing are separate talents. There are a lot people who come up with good titles and are not particularly wonderful writers. I hope that I write well enough, but I don't think I'm a good thinker of titles."
When she begins a book, Ms. Harrison said, she usually has a "fake title. I know it's a fake title, but it reveals itself to be the wrong title. There was the title of Pandora because of Jennifer having a Pandora quality. And, of course, Pandora's Box -- that was shot down pretty quickly."
In Envy is a character who may or may not be the narrator's daughter. He doesn't know. About that character, Ms. Harrison said, "She was a complete surprise. I think that, usually in the course of a novel, except for the first one, which was autobiographical, that the characters were disguised or 'slightly shifted,' real-life people. Usually there's this one, very forceful female character who arrives and...either takes over the book, but in this case Jennifer was not part of the plan in any way, but she just arrived with sort of a smart mouth. She's not a very admirable person, but I like her a lot. I like having written a bad girl that gets away with everything."
Envy's narrator is male. About writing from a male point of view, Ms. Harrison said, "I really like it. I remember reading Joyce Carol Oates's book, I think it's What I Lived For. It's written from male point of view. It was pretty masterful. I closed the book -- it was a good ten years ago -- and thought, 'What a tour-de-force in terms of writing as a man, when you're not a man.' I thought, 'I could never do that.'
"Then I tried it out. I realized, 'I'm starting a book from the point of view of a man.' Instead of looking down at the tightrope and saying to myself, 'Uh oh,' I thought, 'Okay, I'll have Colin read it at the end, and if I've made any terrible mistakes, he'll let me know.'"
"Did he? Had you?"
"No, not really."
What surprised Ms. Harrison, she said, was this: "When I finished Envy, seeing it as I hadn't been able to see it while I was writing it, I thought 'Oh, of course again I'm writing about me and my mother.' A person who's in a very sort of cold, punishing climate where it's really hard to sustain life and he's pursuing a female object that comes and goes at her own discretion without ever speaking to him, and she will allow him to touch her and penetrate her but only so far -- she never allows him any access to what he believes is her soul.
"I thought, 'once again, I am writing about my experience with my mother.' And at that point I realized that it actually is very familiar to me, to be in the position of longing for a withholding elusive female. As a child I experienced my mother as not only desirable but I was very aware of her sexuality, I suppose because was she was so young and because my father disappeared when I was 16 months old, so she was dating and all that.
"So I was aware of her dressing for dates and being involved with young men of whom I was jealous. I understood that she was desirable in terms of her flesh and the way she looked, so I too desired her.
"It feels natural to me to be writing as a character in pursuit of a female object. I actually began this book from a woman's point of view, from the mother's point of view, after a child drowns. I got totally bored. I thought it was sort of distasteful. I thought 'Oh, well, maybe I'll do it from the father's point of view.' I don't know how he turned into a shrink.
"In the beginning, I thought I'd write about somebody who was a veterinarian. So I spent a lot of time hanging with veterinarians and then I realized they have nothing to say. You know, all their patients are animals.
"I've never been so bored in my life. As a teenager I dreamed of being a veterinarian. I hung out with our own vet, and somebody who provided liaison to their veterinarian. But they were these men who had nothing to say. No understanding of who they were or why they were doing what they were doing. So I thought, 'I'm just going to have to give up on this idea.' Because I had in my mind the idea of somebody who was a lot like me in some ways. I mean that whole idea of being sort of a tortured agnostic and constantly looking for a pattern in the chaos of experience. That's not a veterinarian. It's much more likely that that person would be a shrink. It's a very talky book."
"You made Will's father a veterinarian, but you made him retired."
"He retired and turned into a photographer."
"Almost from Envy's first pages," I said, "there's water. The son drowns; the twin brother is a swimmer and so on. You write in the beginning that 'He wants to believe that love can't make mistakes, but what he knows is that it's like water, assuming the shape of the vessel, always imperfect, that holds it.' Did you notice something like that when you finish a book or all along are you aware of it?"
"No, I don't know anything when I get to the end. I think it seems proper for that, given that it's a book that messes around with the idea of the unconscious.
"In the end, I'm not sure I can make an argument for its being a realistic novel in some ways, yes, but in other ways, no. The swimmer twin brother is clearly a doppelganger, a dark expression of his psychoanalyst twin. He's real but he's not real.
"I feel that I have no ability to make any critical judgments about whether a book I've written is good or bad. There are things I like and there are many more things that I feel that I didn't do as well as I could have. But I just don't like looking at it. I'm not so much bored, I think, as stricken here and there by the thought that it should have been better.
"There's this sort of reassurance that comes from a reader who seems to actually understand what it is that you were writing. And then you get reviewed by people who seem to have read a different book. Perhaps naively ten years ago I wouldn't have necessarily thought that was true. But I do believe that the publication of The Kiss taught me many things about which I had the pleasure of not knowing before."
"Did it help you to go to Iowa, to 'writing school'?"
"It didn't really help my writing, I don't think. In some ways, I think that it gives you a set of critical tools by which to analyze your own writing. You know, like any other graduate school, connections come out of it that can be useful to you when you leave, but I think that you can in some way internalize the process of the workshop, in analyzing things like point of view and tone. You know voice and those sorts of things.
"And then to be able to think about them independently afterwards. Then you've learned something. But I think anybody who believes that a writing workshop can teach you to write is incorrect. It might help you to polish your craft but that's a separate thing.
"You know what Iowa did for me? That's where I met my husband. In that sense it had a profound impact on my life because there was no other intersection at which Colin and I might have met -- so that was a great gift."
"Brooklyn must be becoming something of a writer's colony."
"Yes. We landed here completely accidentally. We moved to New York directly from Iowa. Colin was driving the van, a rental, which was worth more than the stuff in it. I flew ahead. I had something like 48 hours to come up with an apartment, which was naïve in the extreme, but we had never lived in New York before. Well, I had a long time ago, but somebody else found the apartment.
"As soon I landed here, I realized, 'There's no way we're going to be able to live in an apartment together in Manhattan because we won't have enough room.' We're not the kind of people who can live in a small room together. We both have needs for space.
"So then the choice was between Astoria and Park Slope in Brooklyn. So I went to Astoria and saw some apartments. The location was fine but they were totally -- floor, walls, ceiling -- upholstered in linoleum. I mean, just more linoleum than one could believe could be installed in an apartment. I thought, 'I can't bear this.' So I thought, 'Okay, it's going to have to be Park Slope.' I found an apartment, Colin arrived, and we unpacked our stuff and there we were. We had no idea that we had landed in this publishing/writing ghetto. It dawned on us slowly that we'd arrived in this place where there are all these writers. It took us a couple of years to figure it out. We've lived here now for almost 20 years, and we've lived in the house that we're in now for 16 years. And I don't think we're ever going to move.
"I hate moving. I find it really to be one of the most wretched experiences."
"Do people in your neighborhood socialize with one another?"
"I suppose they do. We don't much. The whole idea of throwing a dinner party is a nice idea but -- our youngest is five. The two older ones are 15 and 13. So now the 15-year-old can conceivably help out and deal with the 5-year-old if I wanted to have a dinner party, but..."