A complicated life, driven by sex

July 24, 2005|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,Special to the Sun

NOVEL

ENVY

By Kathryn Harrison. Random House. 320 pages.

Character, action and setting: Everything in Kathryn Harrison's Envy is about sex, even when it isn't.

A shrink cannot stop thinking about having sex with his patients, a situation that is somehow connected to the loss of his 12-year-old son, who accidentally drowned three years earlier. Exacerbating both circumstances is the fact that the shrink's wife no longer wants to look at his face when they have sex.

And that's only the beginning of Will Moreland's troubles in Harr-ison's overheated sixth novel.

To further complicate matters, Will has had sex with a 24-year-old female patient, who just might be his own daughter; and who, as she describes it, "collects" older men as if they were paperweights.

Meanwhile, Will begins to suspect that Mitch, his identical twin brother -- except for a birthmark on his face -- has had sex with all the women Will ever dated, maybe even his wife, Carole. And Mitch has done this presumably out of envy -- hence the title.

In addition, Will's septuagenarian father has retired from his veterinarian practice to take up photography and is having an affair with a younger woman. Not to worry. Will's mom knows about the liaison and has given her tacit approval.

But Will does worry. He worries about sex and its impact on every aspect of his life. He also worries about the existence of God, even bringing up the subject with his father, who tells him that this is a private matter (about the only thing considered private in this novel).

With graphic sexual content wedded to a plot based on incest, sexual dysfunction, sexual obsession and mistreatment of women, Harrison's novels tend to be formulaic and repetitive.

The formula works best when her books walk a fine line between pornography and psychological thriller, making her characters more believable and her plots less contrived. And to Harrison's credit, this book aims to walk that line, as Will wonders whether his sexual fantasies might represent a search for a deeper reality.

Perhaps psychoanalysis is a religion resulting in a "conversion experience -- a dramatic, road-to-Damascus-caliber revelation," he muses. But the musings are brought up only to be forgotten in the turmoil of sexual angst, making Will less than a fully realized character acting in a single-issue story.

With lots of sex, the action moves quickly from its beginning, when Will tries to seduce Carole, to the end, as Will again tries to seduce Carole -- with more promising results. One doesn't have to think too much about Will and Carole to understand the dynamics between the two: If the couple could have pleasurable sex, all of their other problems would magically be resolved.

Their problems worsen when, during Will's 25th college reunion, he notices an old flame and learns that she bore a child six months after she married. Soon he begins asking her about the paternity of her daughter (especially because he thinks she may be his own daughter). When the woman reacts with annoyance, he persists and thereby angers the daughter, threatens his professional life, and raises questions about his brother.

All of the above creates a sexual hornet's nest taking Will to New York City, upstate New York, a train terminal in Philadelphia, the campus of Cornell University, a summer camp and a mountain hideaway. And every one of those settings is -- you guessed it -- either an actual or an imagined hotbed of Will's sexual activity.

Diane Scharper is the author of Radiant, a Memoir. She is editing an anthology of memoirs for the Helen Keller Foundation.

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