Chosen as a New York Times Notable Book of 2005
ABOUT THE BOOK
Will 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 Scheherezade 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.
“Kathryn Harrison is a wonderful writer…Spellbinding.” – The New York Times Books Book Review
“A juicy story of psychosexual suspence” – The Wall Street Journal
“Shockingly complex and compulsively readable.” – O, The Oprah Magazine
“Intellectually and sexually provocative, darkly funny, very erotic new novel…[Envy] has to be considered another succcess for one of the most interesting writers of her generation.” – St. Louis Post Dispatch
“Complex and disturbing… Envy is a masterfully constructed, insightful novel of psychosexual suspense that explores the destructive power of loss, betrayal, guilt and envy…an engaging, beautifully written story.” – The Boston Globe
“Her sixth novel mixes incest, obsession, family secrets and betrayal…Harrison’s penetrating focus here is on envy…a complex and highly crafted novel.” – Los Angeles Times
“A compelling, beautifully written, well-constructed look at family problems that initially might seem insurmountable….Harrison is a truly gifted writer.” – Deseret Morning News
“Kathryn Harrison has delivered a compelling tale in her brooding new novel… multiple-layered, top-level psychological sleuthing, a kind of psychic whodunit… Harrison is so gifted, with such a true eye and voice, that she pulls us to the surface without giving the reader the bends. Her hyper-focused imagery is fresh and astonishing, and it is the breathtaking aliveness of her descriptions of environments-exterior and interior-that carry the reader through to a satisfactory end.” – Chicago Sun-Times
“The characters, their conflicts and their conversations do seem real, and their story, however improbable, will keep you turning the pages.” – Newsday
“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.” -BookForum
“Envy is full of Harrison’s astute, often mordant powers of physical and psychological observation…the fact is that Kathryn Harrison is one of our more earnestly impassioned and intellectually engaging players. Long may she run.” -Daphne Merkin for Elle magazine
“Harrison is a high-wire memoirist and a probing and inventive novelist. Her sixth novel, an intoxicating work of psychosexual suspense, portrays a New York family wracked by tragedy, some obvious––the accidental drowning of a young boy––much hidden. Harrison writes commandingly from a male psychologist’s point of view, and much of the heady power of this harrowing tale is rooted in the fact that none of Will’s powers as a perceptive therapist help him understand how his stoic wife copes with their son’s death, or recognize that secrets are being kept from him. Yet Will’s instincts are sharp. He wonders if the 24-year-old daughter of an old girlfriend is his. He is unnerved by his retired veterinarian father’s transformation into a celebrated photographer. He obsesses about the subterranean, perhaps malevolent, aspects of his relationship with his identical twin, Mitch, identical, that is, except for the port-wine stain that disfigures Mitch’s face. A world-famous long-distance swimmer, Mitch has been estranged from his twin and their parents for 15 years, ever since Will got married. Will is finally pitched into crisis by a new patient, a stunningly audacious, spiked and tattooed, viciously intelligent, foul-mouthed, and sexually rampaging young woman. Harrison’s dialogue is electrifying, the sophistication of her psychology is mesmerizing, and her characters, so astutely drawn, are bewitching.” ––Donna Seaman, Booklist
“William Moreland, the 47-year-old New York psychoanalyst at the center of Harrison’s sixth novel, has a family that’s awash in betrayals. Will’s father, a retired veterinarian turned photographer, is having an affair with the owner of his gallery. Will’s brother, Mitchell, a long-distance swimmer with “a name as recognizable as that of, say, Lance Armstrong or Tiger Woods,” is estranged from the family. And ever since Will’s 12-year-old son died three years ago in a boating accident, his wife, Carole, has been emotionally and sexually distant. All these wounds pucker open when Will attends his college reunion and runs into a statuesque ex-girlfriend who left him 25 years ago when she may or may not have been pregnant with his child. That past betrayal becomes entangled with the others in Will’s life and leads to further transgressions and revelations. Given the steamy, soap-operatic nature of this plot, it’s remarkable how Harrison renders it emotionally plausible, in sinuous, sensitive and often funny prose, exposing the raunchiness of sex and the “obscene” nature of mortality. Will’s profession as an analyst seems too convenient–allowing Harrison to analyze her own novel through the voice of her main character–but this is a pardonable flaw in a book so juicy and intelligent.”–Publisher’s Weekly, Starred Review
The Chicago Tribune: Kathryn Harrison plumbs the intense emotions of relationships
By Art Winslow.
Incest, the analyst’s couch, self-blinding of various sorts: Where Oedipus meets Freud, that’s where you’ll find Kathryn Harrison. It’s where we found her in her penetrating memoir “The Kiss,” and where we find her in her new novel, “Envy.”
For Oedipus and William Moreland, the psychoanalyst at the center of “Envy,” the prospect of incest arrives unknowingly, like a default setting of destiny. For Harrison personally, as revealed in “The Kiss,” it arrived after deliberation and a wearying erosion of resistance to a sexualized relationship with her father.
As nonfiction in “The Kiss,” we were told of a father who pushed his tongue into his daughter’s mouth, a preliminary act that in later years Harrison would think of “as a kind of transforming sting, like that of a scorpion.” In “Envy,” such roles are reversed. A patient of Moreland’s–there is a likelihood she is his daughter, a fact unavailable to him but fully known by her–“got him with his back to his office door, a hand on either side of his face, her tongue deep in his mouth.” Moreland’s tongue is “sucked so hard that it aches at the root,” and he is the startled object of aggressive sexual groping as well.
Despite this and other similarities of psychological valence between Harrision’s real and fictional worlds, it would be misleading to consider “Envy” merely a spinoff of “The Kiss,” or dismiss their author as a one-note sensationalist. The intensity of guilt and anger that attend many types of relationships, compulsive ones in particular, is what intrigues Harrison most. Much of “Envy” deals with matters other than potential incest: sibling rivalry, marital estrangement, the loss of a child, its characters’ opacity to each other and even to themselves.
To look back at the memoir and at Harrison’s other novels is to see similar concerns twisting through them like recombinant bits of emotional DNA. Her questions revolve around love and abandonment; betrayal and violation, often by those closest to us; states of emotional exile; and self-deception and miscommunication, which may, in her view, be inevitable. In “The Seal Wife,” the novel that preceded “Envy,” Harrison’s main character took up with women who couldn’t even talk to him: One was an Aleut who lacked English, another had a stammer so bad she wrote notes but wouldn’t speak.
The two main characters we meet as “Envy” opens–Will and his wife, Carole–speak to each other, but as the novel progresses it becomes apparent how veiled and even corrupted their exchanges are. Here’s the first one we see:
” ‘Come on, Will,’ Carole says, ‘don’t do this to me.’
” ‘Do what?’
” ‘Make me feel guilty.’ ”
The guilt in question is over a college reunion–Cornell, Class of ’79–that Will is attending and Carole is not, an event that kicks off much of the action in “Envy.” But we are to find that these people live in guilted cages for many reasons.
Will considers himself “a tortured agnostic, suffering spasms of private, even desolate, self-examination.” Forget that he hasn’t spoken to his twin brother, Mitch, in years, or that he’s “obsessed with sex” and gets aroused frequently in therapy sessions with his patients. Or that he flipped the small sailboat on Little Squam Lake in New Hampshire, which led to the drowning of his and Carole’s son, Luke, three years ago.
There’s still the fact, as he tells his own analyst, that, ” ‘I’m dogged by the sense that I’m lying even when I’m telling the truth.’ ”
The question of truth and untruth courses throughout “Envy,” and for her part, Carole has been keeping a traumatic family secret from Will for years. This untruth by omission exacerbates the aftereffects of their son’s death; the couple won’t look each other in the eye anymore, and they develop a lopsided sex life in which Carole’s “silent compliance . . . was a judgment against him.” She thinks of herself as someone trying to keep a boat upright, rather an overblunt image, given the manner of Luke’s death. And Carole’s inability to vocalize may be something of an authorial joke: She’s a speech pathologist, after all.
And then there’s Mitch, famous for his swimming exploits but an enigma for much of “Envy.” Until late in the novel, he’s a presence only in the sense of being a media phenomenon and a poster boy on the walls of Luke’s empty room. We eventually meet him in rather visceral ways, through recountings by other characters, and the mutual envy between him and Will is one of the underpinning motifs of the novel.
Mitch has a disfigured face, much of it covered by a port-wine stain, and that becomes a sort of analog to the stain Will fears is in his own soul, “a monstrous and unredeemable someone who must lurk within him.” There’s a sexual link between the twins as well, a kind of incest by extension in which the reader sees Harrison broadening the idea of violation to corollary situations. “What better than this primal consummation for two who were once one, two who would always remain a single idea for a person?” she writes.
The multiple sorts of twinnings to be found in “Envy” seem at times to come straight from the analyst’s couch, and Harrison draws heavily on conventions, or at least commonly received notions, from the field. She links a favorite sexual image and death, for example, when it comes to Will’s recollection of the boating accident:
“As they capsized, there was a moment when Will and Luke touched. A part of his son glanced across Will’s face, his thigh, perhaps, because his torso and arms were covered, and Will has the distinct memory of bare skin warm and smooth against his mouth, like a violent kiss, an indelible instant to which Will has returned again and again–how many times, he wonders, were he to add up all the waking and dreaming moments in a year?”
Or in a novel or two, we might wonder. Early in “Envy,” Will runs into an old girlfriend at the class reunion, and the discovery that she has a daughter who might also be his haunts the rest of the book as fully as Luke’s death. Will requests a strand of the young woman’s hair for DNA testing, but his former flame, Elizabeth, refuses him. ” ‘You do owe me something,’ ” he says. ” ‘The truth.’ ”
The truth again, which Elizabeth denies him, Carole denies him, Mitch has denied him, and Will even seems to deny himself. Where is Diogenes when you need him? He does arrive, but in surprising form, as befits a novel that could be termed a psychological thriller. Will thinks of the Cornell gathering as “the fateful reunion” at one point, but Harrison’s plot raises questions of reunion with what: With one’s past? With one’s self? With one’s mate? With one’s twin? With one’s children? With one’s fears? A patient of Will’s says her interest is ” ‘To escape from this, this, um, this thing, this whatever-it-is,’ ” a sexual pattern in her case, and that’s a desire typically shared by Harrison’s characters. Most of them are well-embodied, their dialogue and actions not just realistic but organically faithful to what we know of them, and Harrison’s wit, when it appears, is lively. Will’s mother ran a cleaning service named Heaven Help You; a patient of his bears a tattoo in Latin on her chest that translates as, ” ‘How long, pray, will you take advantage of my patience?’ ”
Harrison does test our patience some, as we draw to the end of “Envy.” Most of the novel is exceedingly good, but the anger and confusion that drove her characters is dissipated in a relatively minor incident, classically a wounding, but still it’s a cathartic episode that seems of too little moment for what it achieves.
“What does it mean to be caught in two simultaneous snares of obsessive thought, both concerning sexual transgression?” Will had pondered at one point. We might still wonder after closing the book. But there is other residue that remains. Speaking of Luke to his own father at one point, Will confesses, ” ‘I wake up, and the bed, the floor, my wife, my own hand–nothing has the . . . the reality, the incandescent life of the child in my dreams.’ ”
The child is father to the man, or woman, anyone?
Art Winslow, a former literary editor and executive editor of The Nation magazine, writes frequently about books and culture.
Female author finds humor in male midlife crisis. It’s not the heat, it’s the steamy prose
From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
By HARPER BARNES
Obsession, principally sexual, has been Kathryn Harrison’s primary topic through many of her 10 books of fiction and nonfiction. In her intellectually and sexually provocative, darkly funny, very erotic new novel, “Envy,” she tries, mostly successfully, to capture the elusive male midlife crisis — a condition, she seems to be saying, that begins at puberty, if not at birth, and may not end until death finally silences the screaming sperm.
Although Harrison writes in the third person, her book is clearly from the point of view of a married man in his 40s, an overanalytical analyst named William Moreland. Moreland’s various obsessions — the tragic drowning of his young son, sex, the possibility that he has a child he has never met, sex, jealousy of his famous but estranged twin brother, sex — all can be seen as part of an ongoing midlife crisis, a condition that may be common to all humanity but seems to turn male members of the species in particular into bumbling, self-destructive and sometimes dangerous idiots.
Having been led into the middle of a mighty mess by his inability to resist an attractive young patient who loves to tell him dirty stories, Moreland muses, in painfully funny shame and horror, “Aren’t tragic flaws supposed to be a bit more grand than lust?” Of course, as Harrison suggests elsewhere in the book, lust and its reverberations form a major component of much great tragedy, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be funny, too. There’s nothing funnier than sex, except for death. Not coincidentally, those are the two key elements of a midlife crisis, and the things Moreland can’t stop obsessing about.
Moreland begins his descent into a self-ignited hell by attending his 25-year college reunion, always a mistake for those prone to obsess about sex, progeny and the meaning of life and death. He demands that an old girlfriend tell him if he was the father of her daughter. When she tells him it’s none of his business, he begins a compulsive march that leads deeper and deeper into a psychic war zone.
Harrison is a fine writer, astute to the Jamesian subtleties of shifting social relationships and the physical signifiers of mood but also able to let the words fly, as she does in hilarious scenes involving the erotic monologues of a brash and foul-mouthed young woman who talks like a female Lenny Bruce (or maybe Alexander Portnoy — there’s more than a touch of Philip Roth in the way Harrison satirizes her characters while keeping them fully human).
There are some surprises in the second half of the novel, and toward the end I began to wonder if, perhaps, plot and agenda had not taken control from the characters. And the ending seems a bit flat. But this book is so funny and so knowing — few female writers are as skillful as Harrison at capturing men at the saddest and most ridiculous extremes of their towel snapping and sexual preening — that it has to be considered another success for one of the most interesting writers of her generation.
More sizzling sex secrets
BY SALLY DUROS
Kathryn Harrison has delivered a compelling tale in her brooding new novel, Envy. Readers who admired her controversial memoir, The Kiss, will find themselves in familiar territory here.
In this novel, her first since Thicker than Water in 1991, Harrison speaks from the viewpoint of a character appropriate for her baby boomer audience. Will Moreland is a psychoanalyst, graduate of the class of ’79, successful, married, and father of two children. We meet Will at a moment of surface calm. But we learn quickly that he is on the brink of a personal crisis building since the accidental drowning of his 10-year-old son, Luke, a few years before. Will suffers from a hyper-analytical and over-articulate mind. The intellect that serves him well in his practice hinders his personal life. As a psychoanalyst, he believes he can think his way to the root cause of any human experience, but, in truth, his intellect hobbles his ability to see clearly.
Will is shaken by dreams that suggest he’s undergone a grisly transformation since Luke’s death. And it’s true that grief has profoundly changed him and his relationship with his highly composed wife, Carole. A wall has come between them, and their previously healthy sex life has been reduced to what Will views as an “indulgence of his need,” a lukewarm transaction based on “mercy.” In turn, Will suffers from a sexual obsession so severely distracting that he has considered taking a leave from his psychoanalytic practice. Will’s inner life is also haunted by ruminations about his estranged twin brother, Mitch, who is identical except for a purple birthmark that disfigures half his face. An Olympic swimmer, Mitch has achieved heroic status swimming on behalf of good causes worldwide.
Early in Envy, Will opens an unfortunate line of inquiry with a lover from 25 years ago at a college reunion. Their conversation leads to a series of events that snare Will onto a path that connects the past and the present in twisted, painful ways. The reader learns there are secrets, and we see new secrets being created — sizzling sexual secrets. The more Will struggles in his situation, the tighter the noose, the greater his immobilization, until the rope of events snaps and the story reaches an unexpected — albeit slightly unsatisfactory — resolution.
The plot is moved along by the sexually frank-to-a-fault, highly contemporary character of Jennifer, a nail-biting, multiple-pierced literary cousin of Monica Lewinsky, who introduces the old-fashioned Will to the wonders of new lubricants and regales him with descriptions of perfectly calibrated sexual acts. Also assisting the exposition is Will’s father, a photographer, and Will’s psychiatrist mentor, Daniel.
There is a lot of talk in Envy — smart and highly educated, with many references to pop culture and art significant to baby boomers and their tribe. All the talk befits a book that is in many ways multiple-layered, top-level psychological sleuthing, a kind of psychic whodunit. What occurs among the characters is considerably less riveting than what occurs within them. For Harrison, this creates the challenge of solving a largely ruminative mystery.
Harrison takes us on a deep-sea dive, not a dog paddle, and we can’t help wondering how we will find the surface again. But Harrison is so gifted, with such a true eye and voice, that she pulls us to the surface without giving the reader the bends. Her hyper-focused imagery is fresh and astonishing, and it is the breathtaking aliveness of her descriptions of environments — exterior and interior — that carry the reader through to a satisfactory end.
Envy is a deep inquiry into the nature of personal identity and how the mirrors of those around us form our identity. This same quest is at the core of The Kiss which described her seduction at the age of 20 by her narcissistic father. Readers familiar with The Kiss will be struck by the many similarities between the two books.
Because of the high-voltage subject matter of Harrison’s books, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. Existential angst, incest, sexual deviance, self mutilation dominate the foreground of an anguished landscape. This is not happy territory. Her characters act out of urge and obsession, blindly seeking intimacy and love.
Harrison’s dark night has given her superhuman powers of observation and significant poetry in her prose. But one can’t help wishing Harrison would turn her laser-like focus more often to gentler, happier themes. When we ask why Harrison would choose to paint these bleak landscapes, the answer is because she must. Her impulse is to find the heart of her identity. The themes she explores are central to her being.
Still, Harrison provides a kind of happy discovery in the resolution of Envy that intellect is ultimately ineffective at parsing human experience into understandable, easily digested chunks. And that the single most important truth in our lives is the valuable connections we make with each other.
From the author of “The Kiss,” a gripping, unsettling story about a middle-aged psychoanalyst’s emotional and sexual adventures.
Salon By Amy Reiter
For at least the first half of Kathryn Harrison’s new novel, “Envy,” you might find yourself wondering about the title. So many other words seem more apt: “Desperation,” maybe. Or even “Perversion.” But then certain facts are revealed — and it makes perfect sense.
Listen, I won’t lie to you. There’s something deeply discomfiting about this story of a New York psychoanalyst, Will Moreland, coping with the death of his eldest child, the stagnation of his marriage, his long estrangement from his own twin brother and the breakup of his parents’ decades-long bond. After a chance encounter with an old girlfriend at his 25-year college reunion, a woman whose 24-year-old daughter may or may not be his, Will begins to unravel a few knotty, long-hidden truths about himself and the people closest to him.
At the risk of giving too much away about this tightly wound story, which unspools in somewhat unexpected ways, I’ll say that Harrison sticks fairly close to familiar terrain, in terms of subject matter and setting. (Her protagonist lives in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, a brownstone community that happens to be not only Harrison’s home turf, but mine too.) But her familiarity allows her to conjure the sorts of details that snap her story into sharp focus. Her characters live in houses with real addresses, walk real streets and eat in restaurants with names — and menus — that many New Yorkers will recognize.
And Harrison doesn’t shy away from recounting minute details even in the novel’s explicit sex scenes — right down to the Astroglide — rendering them unusually potent, repellent and compelling at the same time. For instance:
“‘Check this out,’ she says. Before he can protest she has a finger in his asshole, all the way in. ‘Hey, relax will you? This’ll be good. I know how to make this feel good.’
Will closes his eyes. The only other finger that’s ever been up there is the internist’s, a quick rubber-glove (and, yes, K-Y) check of his prostate, neither man looking at each other and neither, he’s quite sure, with an erection. But with her space-age product she’s doing some kind of inside-out hand job — finger job, he guesses he’d have to call it — and it’s … it is good. It’s really, really good.”
As this passage shows, Harrison has a knack for balancing the external and the internal. And though Will’s endless musing about his life — his losses, his dashed dreams, his recurring fantasies, and what it all means (he is a therapist, you know) — weighs down the story a bit at first, a key encounter sets off a chain of events that loops together much of Will’s seemingly disconnected swirl of thoughts and feelings and yanks us along to the story’s satisfying payoff. Once she gets moving, Harrison cruises, revealing secrets and hidden motives at a rapid, reader-pleasing clip.
For all of Will’s — and Harrison’s — psychobabble, the emotional truths of this story ultimately prove surprisingly simple. But the author clearly intends for her characters and their conflicts to work on a symbolic as well as a literal level: Is Will’s twin brother — a disfigured version of himself, a famous long-distance swimmer who is most alive in the water, a shadowy figure who has slipped out of his brother’s life but whose face haunts him from the covers of magazines — his id personified? Must Will confront and accept his imperfections — and those of his wife and marriage — as well as his capacity to transgress in order to become a complete version of himself?
Some of the novel’s more unsettling moments will stick with you far longer than you might like. And the graphic sex scenes may leave you with the urge to jump right into the shower and hose down. But would you expect anything else from the woman who memorably — and controversially — brought the world “The Kiss,” a memoir about Harrison’s incestuous adult relationship with her long-estranged father?
Harrison’s struggle with thinkier themes raises the book above the level of sticky erotica. She knows how to flatter her readers’ intelligence as well as their prurience; how to tease them along until she’s ready for her story to climax. And she knows how to satisfy. That, at the very least, is something truly worthy of envy.
Interview from PAGES JULY/AUGUST 2005
Like his creator, Kathryn Harrison’s protagonist discovers just how dangerous embracing the past can be.
Full disclosure item number one: My editor assigned this piece about Kathryn Harrison to me because I knew next to nothing about Kathryn Harrison. “I’m intrigued,” says Harrison when I tell her that her new novel, ENVY (Random House), is the only one of her books I’ve read. “Because I have certainly had enough interviews about the same topic.” The author is, of course, referring to incest, the topic of her 1997 nonfiction book THE KISS in which she detailed her affair with her biological father when she was in her 20s. That book redefined the ‘tell-all’ memoir. What more, readers wondered, could there be to tell?
Fortunately for those who recognize that Harrison is one of the finest writers of her generation, there has been more, both fiction and nonfiction, to tell. She followed THE KISS with THE MOTHER KNOT, a spare and sad memoir about coming to terms with her mother by exhuming the dead woman’s ashes and scattering them over Long Island Sound. She followed novels like THE BINDING CHAIR (Chinese foot binding) and EXPOSURE (a young woman violated by her father’s art) with THE SEAL WIFE (a man in thrall to erotic desire) and now, ENVY (a man in thrall to problems from his past). Harrison not only believes there’s a lot more to tell, she believes there is a connection: “I think that there is a thread or a rope of longing that runs through my work,” she says, speaking by telephone from her New York home. “It seems to be attached to different love objects, that are united by my history with my mother.” That umbilical rope is not just a favorite theme; it’s also why Harrison believes she’s been successful in writing from the male perspective in this latest book. “I know the female perspective so well that there’s fun for me in turning it on its side, and I’m peculiarly well-suited to do that because I had unrequited love for my mother,” she says. “I’m very aware of the psychic state of wanting to pin down a woman who keeps escaping, which is true of my main female character in this book, too. There’s one thing.” Harrison continues: “There are also religious themes that run throughout my work.” Is she religious?” Well, I don’t know, I have slo-mo- crises of faith, but I am a Roman Catholic,” she admits. (In fact, one of her books in the Penguin edition of the Life of St. Theresa of Lisieux; more on that shortly). Did she watch Pope John Paul II’s funeral? “We don’t have a TV, and the only one I see is above the aerobic exercise machines at the gym. There was one tuned in to the Pope’s funeral rites and another one tuned into the latest Jerry Springer show, and then there was me, with an iPod shoved in my ear.” Harrison laughs heartily. ” So THAT was the context for me, but yes, I did follow his death and funeral. I actually liked him a great deal and think he had a profound impact on the world. When he died, I experienced a sadness.” Wait one minute. That Harrison woman, that chronicler of incest and sex and desire, is a self-avowed Roman Catholic, saint’s biographer, and Papal mourner? She laughs long and heartily again. “I like that title!” she says. “I’m RESIGNED to being ‘that Harrison woman!’ However,” she quickly and efficiently becomes serious, “I want my work to have import. I don’t want my work to be reducible. But if people didn’t object to some of the things I write about, I would have failed at my job.”
Since ENVY opens like a well-bred novel of manners, with Will, a successful Manhattan psychiatrist, about to attend his 25th reunion at Cornell University, at first glance it seemed to be a departure for Harrison. And then- bam!- comes a most Harrsonian section riveting in its detail, honesty, and surprise. Chuckling once more, the author says, “There are pivotal scenes, and of course they connect with one another. It’s the crisis, the classic arc. Will has lost control; he’s on a slippery slope where I like to put a character in order to maximize the pressure before exposing him to yet another crisis.” (Reread this paragraph after you’ve read the book. You’ll see why.)
Harrison and I find ourselves chatting about the Pope again. When I mention that I keep wondering who makes the Papal shoes, she tells me a story about how one of her daughters was found at a wedding lying on her back beneath the lead table. “She wanted to find out if the bride had feet!” says Harrison. “It’s kind of like that with the Pope. His feet are so much more intriguing because they’re almost always hidden.” But for someone who once centered an entire novel (THE BINDING CHAIR) on bound feet because, “They became, for their culture, like an extra set of private parts,” bringing hidden things out into the open is not just another piece of chatter.
Full disclosure item number two: My editor didn’t know that one of the characters in ENVY has a facial disfigurement. SO do I. What does it all mean?
“Mitch’s birthmark, it’s not such a big deal, or it wouldn’t be,” says Harrison. “It can remain a big deal depending on how it’s handled. I have a friend whose daughter has a port-wine stain on her face and it’s so not an issue. But I’m interested in memory and how it unfolds; Mitch [Will’s twin brother] only appears in the past. I think his birthmark makes him more interesting, and more sinister.”
No matter how weighty Mitch’s birthmark seems, Harrison is adamant that “I don’t even notice the symbols in my books. Not at all. Writers aren’t very calculating. If I chose to give something meaning, it was a helpless choice.” The phrase ‘helpless choice’ also applies to her career. “I went to Stanford and entered college as a pre-med. Once I discovered I had a facility for writing, I ‘defected’ out of the sciences.
A few years after graduating from Stanford (years that must have seemed like emotional decades, considering this was the time in which she was involved with her father, whom she met as an adult), Harrison found that she’d become a writer. “I became increasingly dependent with writing as my lens for life. It was sort of addictive, or at least it has been for me. I don’t know how to function without writing everything down, although I don’t keep a journal at all.”
She entered the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she earned her MFA and met novelist Colin Harrison, her husband of 18 years. They have three children. Harrison says it was a dream about her youngest, a son named Walker, that formed the kernel of ENVY: “The genesis of this book was the dream that Will has about his son Luke. I had a completely terrifying dream about my son being dead but perfect and then recoiling from the still-living me.”
Since critics have often noted that Harrison seems to inflict dreadful things on her characters, a dream about someone ‘dead but perfect’ rejecting mere mortality does seem significant. “Yeah, I’m supposedly a sadist!” she says. But the truth is that what I’m writing about is what terrifies ME; that’s how I’m dealing with it. That dream stuck with me so tenaciously! It was like the bit of sand that gets into an oyster and keeps irritating and adding layers.”
Harrison wisely stops the metaphor short. “Sometimes I wish I had a volume knob so I could turn myself down… Or off. How about OFF?” she says, again laughing. “Maybe that’s why I love reading obituaries. The people described have been ‘turned off,’ but on the page, they’re still alive.” Perhaps for the same reasons, she loves reading her alumni news of ‘people you hardly knew, the paths life takes after you’ve gone out into the world. It’s fascinating.” Will’s fascination (well, obsession) with the path of someone else’s life at his own reunion is the catalyst for his own tragedy. His tragic undoing through envy is what Harrison deems ‘a po-mo kind of disease,’ meaning that the more we know about what everyone else has, the more opportunities there are for wanting it. Harrison has a remarkably light touch when it comes to introducing symbols and themes and reveals different kinds of envy in different ways: slowly, sharply, quietly, loudly- even unconsciously. As we discuss how Will’s wife, Carol, is a woman difficult to hold onto (“She’s always sliding around,” says Harrison), I ask about Will’s father, who intrigues me: a retired veterinarian, he is in the midst of experiencing unforeseen success as an art photographer.
“Ah,” she says. “He’s kind of like Carol, but he’s sliding around for a different reason: He’s at ease with himself and doesn’t mind changing. He’s my favorite character in the book and is at least 50 percent based on my husband’s father. In a way, when I created him, I invented the kind of father I wanted.”
1. How does envy, one of our primal emotions, function in the novel? Discuss both the obvious and ambiguous ways in which it works.
2. Will’s occupation easily lends itself to constant self-scrutiny. How would Will’s character be different if he weren’t an analyst? Do you think we’d know more, or less, about his innermost thoughts? How would this change affect our impressions of Will?
3. In a way, Will has failed in his role of caretaker. In childhood, he was unable to protect his twin from pain and abuse; in adulthood, he could not protect his own child from a fatal accident. And his relationship with his wife, Carole, lacks the emotional security of marriage. How does this affect his sense of self? Discuss.
4. Stereotypically, we think of men using sex to threaten and intimidate women, but in Envy, we see women using sex in punitive ways. How does Jennifer’s punishment of Will differ from Carole’s?
5. Beyond a dire sibling rivalry, Envy is a novel about grief – about mortality and loss, and each of the Morelands must grapple with these. In the wake of his son’s death, Will obsesses over paternity. Carole’s reading habits offer a clue as to her way of managing grief, from yoga magazines to grisly true-crime books – from a Buddhist acceptance of suffering to a bloody, cathartic confrontation of death. What about Will’s parents? How do they cope?
6. Discuss the parent-child couplings in Envy. Do the parents, Will’s father, Jennifer’s mother, and of course, Will and Carole, maintain appropriate boundaries between themselves and their children?
7. Discuss Harrison’s use of water imagery in the novel. (Think of Mitch as a swimmer, Luke’s death while sailing, etc.) What purpose does it serve?
8. Although Will’s brother, Mitch, is the psychological lynchpin of this novel, the catalyst for loss, he never appears. Is it possible to regard Mitch as Will’s doppelganger rather than his actual twin? How strictly realistic is this novel?
9. What does Envy have to say about secrecy?
10. Will and Carole go against stereotypical gender types. Will, the man, lacks the emotional control of his wife, Carole, who is self-contained and unwilling to reveal her feelings in what we consider a typically feminine manner. Is this inversion significant to the novel’s plot? What effect does it have on the story’s catharsis?
Q&A WITH KATHRYN HARRISON
Q. Envy is such a complex story. Where did you get your ideas? And how did you weave so many issues (the death of a child, a brother’s betrayal, a distant marriage, adultery, and unknown paternity—to name a few) into such a cohesive narrative?
A. The novel began as an exploration of grief, from the point of view of a mother who had lost her child – I think writers often use fiction to explore what frightens them, and I can’t imagine anything more annihilating than the death of a child. In fact, it was impossible for me to get close enough to the mother’s perspective, so I ended up trying on the father’s role. I gave Will, the father, a twin because I’ve always found identical twins – the idea of another you – sinister in its implicit threat to identity, and from that point, the book accrued subplots, by means of an unconscious process I don’t understand clearly enough to explain.
Q. Envy is your sixth novel. But you’ve also written wonderful, intimate memoirs (The Kiss and The Mother Knot). How do you move from completely looking inward and writing about your own experiences, to writing a novel like Envy, with a male protagonist, no less? Is it more challenging to focus on the male perspective, or does the distance make it easier?
A. I’ve found that alternating between fiction and nonfiction works – for me – to alleve the strains associated with each. The hardest part of fiction, for me, is plotting. Nonfiction doesn’t demand the invention of plot, but it does pose challenges in terms of how much information is to be revealed, and in what order. As for the male perspective, the cerebral answer is that it makes conceiving a character more fun, challenging. The more honest answer is that my relationship with my mother, who was emotionally distant, and who left me in the care of her parents when I was six, gave me the perfect means of learning what it was like to suffer in loving a woman who always eludes one’s grasp – a conventionally male role, romantically speaking. So what may appear on the page as a very different experience from my own, as a heterosexual woman, is actually pretty familiar to me.
Q. How did you create Will’s character? What made you decide that he would be a psychoanalyst? What do you think his profession adds to the story?
A. Will began as a veterinarian, as a means of my pursuing the career I thought I’d have when I was a teenager. But after hanging out with a few vets, doing my research, I discovered that vets didn’t have a lot to say: their patients, after all, don’t talk to them. So maybe turning Will into a psychoanalyst was an over-correction, going from a man of few words to a man of unlimited words, one who can’t stop the torrent of words that flows from him. Envy is a much “talkier” book than my others, and gave me a chance to have some fun with various kinds of dialogue. Jennifer arrived as pure voice, the rest of her taking form after her words were uttered. I wanted Will to be very smart, and very articulate, and very able to parse and address other people’s problems, while remaining blind to his own, so his being a shrink gave me the perfect opportunity to do that.
Q. Will’s relationship with his twin brother, Mitch, is fascinating, and the motivation for the book’s title. Yet Mitch never physically enters the story. Was this a conscious decision from the start? What would have been gained or lost from bringing Mitch into the plot?
A. Yes, how real is Mitch? I don’t think I can answer the question. As a catalyst – as the catalyst – for nearly all the novel’s action, he is integral, and yet he doesn’t appear, except in Will’s memory, his conversations with other people. So is he a part of Will? Will’s dark side? The physical aspect of a man who is – other than sexually – pretty trapped in his head? I think of Mitch as Will’s doppelganger as much as his brother. It wasn’t a conscious decision really – not many of them are, in a novel, but I can’t imagine Envy without him. He completes Will, together they make one hero, or anti-hero. Good and bad, mind and body, etc.
Q. Luke’s tragic death is the impetus for the deterioration of Will and Carole’s relationship. How were you able to capture the intense grief these characters felt, without having experienced it yourself?
A. I haven’t lost a child, but I have lost the family I grew up with – first my mother, twenty years ago now, then my grandfather and grandmother, who raised me for her. While I was writing this book father-in-law died, a man to whom I’d been very close (and who was the inspiration, if not model, for Will’s dad) – and functioned to remind me of the visceral quality of grieving. I do know grief, grief intense enough to threaten one’s understanding of oneself, requires a person to forge a new self. I don’t imagine that what I’ve felt approaches losing a child, because such a loss breaks the natural order of things, and seems unsustainable to me, but I think – I hope – I could extrapolate enough from the experiences I did have to grieve convincingly on the page.
Q. Jennifer is such a fascinating character. How did you create such an uninhibited, troubled, forceful young woman? Did you know she was going to be wild from the beginning? Or did she grow into something different than you had planned?
A. As I said earlier, Jennifer arrived as a voice, a totally unplanned addition to the novel’s cast. In this way she is a sister to other of my female characters – to May, from The Binding Chair, to Francisca, from Poison, the Aleut in The Seal Wife, whose muteness, or refusal to speak, is a kind of communication. All of these female characters arrived unbidden and collided with the story I thought I was writing, changing it utterly. I’m not sure I can explain why this happens, other than that when I allow these women to refuse the roles forced on them, and to speak, to say what they want, rather than what other people want to hear, I address some of the damage my early inflicted on me.
Q. On the topic of Jennifer, I read somewhere that you’d like to see her return in another one of your novels. Can you explain your affection for her? And do you think you’ll be able to bring her back?
A. It’s delicious – intoxicating, really – to create a female character who is unapologetically selfish and “bad,” and who gets away with wreaking havoc on other people’s lives. Literature almost always punishes the bad girls; it’s nice to turn tables every once in a while. Too, no matter her sins, Jennifer is very full of life, and very hungry, psychically, and I think those characters are always bewitching. They are to me.
Q. What about Will’s troubled relationship with Carole? Do you think a crisis like Will’s affair with Jennifer was necessary to save his marriage?
A. Yes, I do. Will needed to break open his marriage, violently, in order to understand what happened even before the death of Luke to set the stage for estrangement between him and Carole. It’s as if he unconsciously understands that he needs to take this risk in order to save his marriage.
Q. Which character was the hardest to write? Why?
A. They’re all hard; they all present challenges. I think it’s difficult to write children without sentimentalizing them, or forcing them into the role of miniature adults, so Luke and Samantha, and the child versions of Will and Mitch, made me most anxious to not misstep. Anything that requires my puzzling something out cerebrally is harder than the kind of character, like Jennifer, who just pops out of my unconscious, without needing too many adjustments.
Q. The cover image is so understated and beautiful. How did you and the jacket designer come up with it?
A. All I did was applaud – all credit to the art director. I do love it.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. Something very different – a true story of three murders within the same family, 20 years ago, in Washington State. I admit I have a true crime addiction – like Carole – and my fascination with murder does fuel my interest in this story, but beyond that I want to understand how people move on after cataclysmic events like this. So I’m interviewing all the people involved, including the murderer and the sister he did not kill. So far it’s very compelling, and exhausting, to deal with such loaded material.