By Kathryn Harrison
Random House. 301 pp. $24.95
Writers and critics who complain of the shrinking audience for literary fiction argue -- validly -- that huge advances and advertising budgets for blockbusters reduce the resources left to promote serious novels. But the chances of good literary fiction finding an audience are also damaged when books such as Kathryn Harrison's Envy are published and passed off as worthy. Ten pages of Envy are enough to make you yearn for the juiciest trash novel you can find; 50 will have you dreaming of box-top recipes, road maps, computer instructions -- anything with a purpose.
Envy is a book that offers the reader nothing: no character who is complex, flawed, passionate or dynamic enough for us to have a stake in; no discernible dramatic arc; no sense of humor; no language that achieves force or grace or surprise; no conflict or revelation that rises above the schematic; no awareness outside the cushy, circumscribed world it describes.
Even speaking of the book's main character, Will, as a successful Park Slope psychoanalyst feels like mouthing a cliche, as does recounting what passes for plot -- sibling estrangement; mid-life crisis; past personal tragedy (son, drowned -- as Nabokov would write) and attendant guilt; sexual temptation.
Best, perhaps, to take them one by one.
Sibling estrangement: Will has a twin brother, Mitch, a famous professional swimmer who has not had contact with Will or their parents in 15 years. Naturally, Will feels as if he lives in his twin's shadow.
Mid-life crisis: Will meets an old flame at his 25th college reunion.
Past personal tragedy and attendant guilt: Will's son drowned in a lake when Will took the boy out in a boat.
Sexual temptation: Will's patient, a nympho punk, describes in detail her penchant for "collecting" older men.
It seems fitting that, at one point, Will's father says he's reading Frankenstein because, like the creature in Mary Shelley's novel, Envy has been cobbled together from dead parts, most obviously the suburban angst, hidden male turmoil and vaguely embarrassed sexual explicitness you find in Updike and Cheever. When Will's extramarital partner introduces him to Astroglide, he thinks of it as a "space-age product." Even that phrase "space-age" has an outmoded suburban boosterism about it. As Harrison bulls her way through the novel's long, detailed sexual encounter, nothing in it convincingly suggests either abandon or shame.
There is something both tony and precious in Harrison's determination to shock. And when she introduces the possibility of incest into Envy, you feel as if she no longer even cares to convince us of her novel's reality. After revealing the incestuous affair she carried on with her father in her well-publicized memoir, The Kiss (1997), Harrison has no way to write about incest fictionally without it sounding like a rehash of her personal experience.
Even without that development, there is enough to rob Envy of any claim to successful fiction, not least Harrison's writing-seminar symbolism. Will's wife has been unable to have face-to-face sex with her husband since their son's death; Will dreams of having sex with women while his face is shrouded in shadow; Mitch, his estranged twin, turns out to have a port-wine birthmark on his face. They're all vague and terribly programmatic symbols of shame and loss of identity. It all feels set up but with no propulsion -- a Lifetime movie in which the melodramatic goods have been replaced by ennui and, for all the alleged psychological "truth" on display, a stifling propriety. A smugness infects Envy right down to its we're-stronger-for-having-passed-through-the-pain finale. It's a solipsism antithetical to the emotional journey a novel is supposed to provide. *
Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.