Kathryn Harrison loves gray areas: This much we know. The characters in her novels and memoirs dwell in some hinterland of moral, sexual, and familial ambiguity. They engage in incestuous affairs, self-mutilation, voyeurism, mortification of the flesh, and unwholesome fixations—all coated with her trademark queasy mixture of guilt and rapture. Will, the Park Slope psychiatrist at the center of Harrison’s new novel Envy, is less colorful than Harrison’s usual protagonists, like the self-cutting speed freak in Exposure or the prostitute with bound feet in The Binding Chair. Will is too much like a walking gray blob himself. Although he prides himself on his penetrating analytical skills, Will sleepwalks through life, oblivious to hints about a welter of family secrets. The only thing connecting him to previous Harrison narrators is his coy admission “that certain of his preoccupations are those that might alarm a wife.” He’s developed a streak of sexual obsession that tends to, er, pop up when he’s listening to his patients.
Envy opens with Will’s 25th college reunion, that mundane staging ground for middle-aged angst. All around him, people aren’t “talking so much as advertising” their successes. But Will finds himself in a defensive crouch, warding off questions about the two most painful absences in his life: his son Luke, who died in a boating accident a few years ago, and his twin brother, Mitch, now a world-famous swimmer, who has not communicated with Will for more than a decade. Exhausted by unfinished business, Will strikes up a conversation with an ex-girlfriend. It turns out that she gave birth to a daughter shortly after breaking up with him, and Will can’t stop himself from wondering whether it’s his child. Back home, he doesn’t mention any of his anxieties to his wife, Carole, a serene blonde yoga adept who, Will says, “seems at peace with life, with herself. Not like me.” But as in Harrison’s previous novel
The Seal Wife (about a male meteorologist traveling in Alaska who’s enthralled by a silent, self-contained Aleut woman), this female serenity also translates into unavailability: Carole has shut Will out of her emotional life, refusing to have sex with him in a position in which their eyes can meet.
Carole also has a penchant for sex and violence, delivered in measured doses by the true-crime books she reads nightly. Will complains to his own therapist that his wife “won’t admit any contradiction in being . . . a feminist and a yoga devotee and a purchaser of only organic produce . . . as well as an insatiable consumer of true crime. With photo inserts of chopped-up women.” This is probably true of a sizable swath of the Park Slope Food Coop and might’ve been interesting to explore further—except that Will would rather yank attention back to himself and how all this makes him feel. A monomaniacal narrator, he even begins to fantasize that his patients have somehow caught their problems from him. “Can it be true that all of Will’s patients are consumed by the topic of sex? Getting it. Not getting it. Getting it, but not enough of it. . . . Has he done this to them? Communicated his disease?”
More a collection of preoccupations and analyses than a real person, Will “sifts, sorts, and turns the pieces, lays them down and picks them up in what amounts to an endless game of mental solitaire”—a description that sounds a lot like Harrison’s treatment of the character itself. Much of this well-written but deeply frustrating novel consists of Will scrutinizing his own character, leaving little impetus for us to do so. His self-diagnoses are usually sharply articulated: His sexual mania, for instance, is pegged as a way to “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.” But it’s hard not to cheer for Carole when she begs, “Oh God, Will! Shut up! Won’t you please, please stop!”
Midway through the book, Will’s endless talk soup erupts into thriller-style action. A young female patient rattles his cage with her own confessions of sexual obsession: She likes to have sex with father figure types and then describe it to Will in gory, Technicolor detail. With her gamy aura of “sexy squalor,” her savagely mauled fingernails, and her suede coat stained with grease “as if she were in the habit of keeping French fries in her pockets,” Jennifer suddenly feels more real to us than Will ever has—even when she turns out to be a Fatal Attraction–style man-eater intent on trapping him.
But in Harrison’s fictional milieu, Jennifer is not really a villain. Instead, she’s a frightening but necessary agent of revelation, forcing Will out of his comfort zone as he falls headlong—or in this case dicklong—into an abyss of family drama. Mostly this involves twin brother Mitch, an intriguing doppelg who appears only in flashbacks to the boys’ childhoods, when they shared the kind of claustrophobic intimacy that inevitably signals danger in a Harrison novel. The festering relationship between identical twins turns out to be at the elusive heart of this muddled, psychoanalysis-drenched tale of a man who dedicates his life to interpreting other people’s problems but is unable to decipher the distress in his own home.