The Magazine

Pants on Fire!

A Review of Kathryn Harris.

Mar 24, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 27 • By MARY EBERSTADT
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How did you while away the first half of your twenties? Did you study? Did you work? Did you hang around with your boyfriend or girlfriend? Did you meet up with your long-lost father and embark on a four-year sexual relationship that began in an airport, continued in motel rooms, apartments, and other intriguing places (Grandpa's house!) across the country, and ended only after a final year during which you took up residence in his house, surrounded by his second wife and children?

If that last question has set you to nodding vigorously, then you probably are well aware already that the publishing world has finally got the book for you. The Kiss: A Memoir, by three-time novelist Kathryn Harrison, has been the object of one of the most successfully orchestrated publicity campaigns in literary memory. Harper's magazine (where the author's husband, novelist Colin Harrison, is deputy editor) published a portion of the work over two years ago, and the New Yorker purchased rights to run an excerpt before publication. The Literary Guild and the Book-of-the-Month Club both bid on it and the latter won. The canny business reasoning behind all this scrambling for advantage now appears quite sound. For insofar as we are all either apologists for incest or deplorers of it, here is finally a book over which people will choose sides.

In the meantime the author herself, indeed the whole Harrison family, has become ubiquitous. There is Mrs. Harrison in the February issue of Vanity Fair, in a fetching black leotard and bolero jacket, the centerpiece of a study on the new wave of female memoirists. There she is again some weeks later in the Style section of the Washington Post, glamorously photographed with her husband and her father-in-law, headmaster of the prestigious Sidwell Friends School (where the President's daughter is enrolled). You wouldn't say these people shun publicity. Harrison pere brags to the papers that the book is "superb"; husband Colin is said to be publishing his reaction to the book in a forthcoming issue of Vogue; and the author herself, career in skyrocket, is reportedly now the head fiction judge for the National Book Awards.

Now, for the literary world to weigh in as decisively as it has here on behalf of any book is itself a spectacle worthy of some attention. This much would be true even if the subject at hand were not something so self- evidently spellbinding as the tale of the four-year sexual entanglement between an obese preacher/theologian and his anorexic Stanford-educated first child. But the multiple showcasings of Mrs. Harrison's memoir are if anything even more remarkable given the anorexic character of the text itself. In truth, this is one waif of a memoir. It weighs in at a mere 207 pages and has margins the size of fanny paddles. Per word, The Kiss could very well turn out to be the best-paying father-daughter incest story of our time.

It is also, to the complete commercial vindication of the parties involved, a book that has already summoned prominent and impassioned reviews. To endorsers and admirers, The Kiss is "uncanny" and "heartbreaking" (Tobias Wolff); "fearless and frightening, ironic and compassionate" (Mary Gordon); " amazing and terrifying" (Luc Sante); and -- somebody had to say it -- "a moral victory" (Robert Coles). "Lyrical and dry, with this analytical quality, " essayist Phillip Lopate enthuses in Vanity Fair. Christopher Lehmann- Haupt calls it "beautifully written" and counsels that "the reader's defense . . . can only be to try to understand."

Then there are the critics. "Slimy, repellent, meretricious, cynical"; " incest chic" and "cultural rot"; "Ms. Harrison's conscience is conspicuously absent from her memories." This partial list, attributable respectively to Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post, Suzanne Fields in the Washington Times, and Cynthia Crossen in the Wall Street Journal, is, one can safely imagine, only the harbinger of more denunciations to come.

The one thing that no one has yet managed to explain, however, is why we should believe that this story is true. To be sure, a certain skepticism has been ventured. As Crossen observed, for example, "some scenes" in the book " defy credulity"; and Jonathan Yardley did qualify his critical revulsion with an "if, by the way, anything herein actually happened as she claims it did."

These are sound points, but they don't go far enough. For the truth, and for all we know, the only truth, to be gleaned from the pages of The Kiss is that there is no compelling reason to believe that certain things happened as the author says they did, and several good reasons to surmise that they did not.