God help the unsuspecting reader who picks up The Kiss on the assumption that Kathryn Harrison’s romantically titled memoir is some sort of literary valentine. Here’s the smooch the 36-year-old novelist, wife, and mother has in mind: ”My father pushes his tongue deep into my mouth: wet, insistent, exploring, then withdrawn.” Whoa. This kiss is the start of a consensual affair the author had with her father, a Protestant minister, from the time she was 20 till she turned 24. The action, she goes on to write, was ”a kind of transforming sting, like that of a scorpion: a narcotic that spreads from my mouth to my brain.”
Smelling salts, anyone? Harrison has covertly described this incestuous relationship before, in her autobiographical first novel, Thicker Than Water (1991). But The Kiss is…something else. Despite its controlled and narcotized language and lack of graphic details, its non-fictive content is nothing short of explosive. And in the weeks before its publication this month, Harrison’s confessional — while eliciting blurbs of praise from selected fellow novelists (”like lightning in the heart’s dark tempest,” offers Bob Shacochis) — has rattled the composure of some of the most sophisticated book-chat types. The critic at The Washington Post called The Kiss ”slimy, repellent, meretricious, cynical.” The Wall Street Journal’s reviewer invoked her own grandmother’s language in urging the author to ”hush up.”
Harrison has no such plans. Talking volubly in a back room at her publisher’s offices with a brisk intensity that is the very opposite of slimy and repellent — urban and worldly is more like it — she is nonplussed. ”Some people say, ‘How could you have the bad sense or stupidity or whatever to write it down? Bad enough that it happened, but just shut up about it!’ It’s curious, that I didn’t expect that. It forces the book into sort of a political position that I didn’t even anticipate while I was writing it: Yes, we can write about anything.”
The author’s hands frequently rake through the thick, blonded chin-length hair that once, when her father loved it, flowed dramatically down her back. Speaking in matter-of-fact tones, she refers to the affair as ”the material,” and to the book as ”a piece of goods” — her best, she assesses. (Her three novels have all received good reviews.) ”I think a lot of [reviewers] are simply angry about my speaking the unspeakable.”
Well…yes. This woman slept with her father. And then told the world.
To put it another way, just because a writer can speak the unspeakable, does that mean that she should? Harrison’s mother is dead, but the unnamed father, with whom the daughter says she has not been in contact in ”10 or 12” years, is, last she heard, alive somewhere with his second wife and their children. (Her parents split up when she was an infant; her mother left her to be raised by her grandmother; the father saw Kathryn only briefly before coming to claim her when she was a college student at Stanford.) The author’s own children, a 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son who live with their parents in Brooklyn, are young but won’t always be. Her husband, Colin Harrison, deputy editor of Harper’s Magazine, is himself a novelist (Manhattan Nocturne) but will henceforth also be known as the man who sleeps with the woman who slept with her father.