Father, photos lead to pain in 'Exposure'

March 30, 1993|By Susan M. Barbieri | Susan M. Barbieri,Orlando Sentinel

Someone stole Ann Rogers' innocence when she was a child, and she was helpless to do anything about it. So now Ann steals from Saks and Bloomingdale's, in a misguided and subconscious desire to get some part of herself back.

We are introduced to Ann as she is changing into a purloined suede skirt in the back seat of a New York cab. She has left a trail of discarded slips, skirts, dresses and underwear in cabs all over the city. She idly wonders what the next passenger will do, if anything, with her clothes.

This opening vignette of Kathryn Harrison's novel "Exposure" offers small clues to what will happen over the next five months in the life of Ann Rogers, wedding videographer and daughter of famous art photographer Edgar Rogers.

The opening scene is actually a high point. Ann's frame of mind spirals relentlessly downward from there fueled by the coming retrospective of her father's photographs at the Museum of Modern Art. Since his 1978 suicide, Edgar Rogers' photos have been the focus of debate over definitions of art and obscenity. His photos are nudes of Ann -- some documenting self-mutilation and sexual play.

Ms. Harrison writes: "Every photograph of note was of Ann. Cautious, he stuck with a successful theme -- Ann posed as if dead -- and over the years, as she grew and changed, there was something increasingly fascinating and seductive in the fact that it was the same child, the same girl, teen-ager, woman, who died a thousand deaths for the camera."

Ann discovers photos her father took without her knowledge, including one of her and her first boyfriend making love. Seeing these voyeuristic photographs for the first time, Ann is reeling emotionally.

Usually she could not get her father's attention unless she were playing dead. As an adult, she becomes trapped in the same self-destructive psychology. Only this time she is crying out not for her father's attention, but for anyone's. Screwing up at work, stealing clothes, doing drugs, "forgetting" to monitor her diabetes -- it's like playing dead all over again. She is on the brink of losing it all.

Ms. Harrison has structured her novel like a filmmaker structures movie. Newspaper clippings, memoirs, legal transcripts -- these pieces are interspersed between the here-and-now narrative, and the splicing of the pieces makes for a fast, videolike pace. The disturbing snippets from the past illuminate Ann's adult problems and the reasons for her decline:

"Ann shuddered sometimes as her father arranged her into the position he wanted. Sometimes as she lay quietly waiting for him to finish, she felt as if she were truly dying. His will seemed to paralyze her; she was good at posing dead because she found herself actually unable to move when he told her to be still."

Ms. Harrison deftly explores the many gray areas that lie between art and pornography, voyeurism and child abuse. Everything happens through camera lenses: Edgar Rogers' passive-aggressive abuse of Ann; Ann's subconscious wish to make everything right when she films less-than-perfect weddings.

The eye is the critical image throughout the story, and Ms. Harrison has a wonderfully detailed section about the physiology of the eye and Ann's eye operation -- necessitated in part by diabetes and her own self-neglect.

Aside from the unlikely death of Ann's mother (how many women died in childbirth in the '50s?), Ms. Harrison's story moves well and packs power. "Exposure" is a disturbing but illuminating look at one woman's quest to reclaim herself.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Exposure."

Author: Kathryn Harrison.

Publisher: Random House.

/# Length, price: 219 pages, $20.

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