The Kissby Kathryn Harrison
We meet at airport. We meet in cities where we've never been before. We meet where no one will recognize us.A "man of God" is how someone described my father to me. I don 't remember who. Not my mother. I'm young enough that I take the words to mean he has magical properties and that he is good, better than other people.With his hand under my chin, my father draws my… See more details below
We meet at airport. We meet in cities where we've never been before. We meet where no one will recognize us.A "man of God" is how someone described my father to me. I don 't remember who. Not my mother. I'm young enough that I take the words to mean he has magical properties and that he is good, better than other people.With his hand under my chin, my father draws my face toward his own. He touches his lips to mine. I stiffen.I am frightened by the kiss. I know it wrong, and its wrongness is what lets me know, too, that it is a secret.
Which would be all right -- it would be shameful, after all, to be caught enjoying a memoir about incest -- if the book had something to make it stand out from the mob of survivors' stories, both fictional and autobiographical, that publishers have inflicted on us lately. But as The Kiss demonstrates, incest alone, terrible as it is, does not a compelling book make.
This is not to downplay the pain that Harrison suffered, or the disgust and horror of the affair itself, which begins with a farewell kiss at an airport: "It is no longer a chaste, closed-lipped kiss. My father pushes his tongue deep into my mouth: wet, insistent, exploring, then withdrawn. He picks up his camera case, and, smiling brightly, he joins the end of the line of passengers disappearing into the airplane."
A grotesque moment, one of only a handful in an otherwise numbed and numbing narrative. In etherized first-person, present-tense prose, Harrison describes the paternal seduction that followed, the obsessive phone calls and letters, the blurry sexual encounters: "In years to come, I won't be able to remember even one instance of our lying together. I'll have a composite, generic memory. I'll know that he was always on top and that I always lay still, as still as if I had, in truth, fallen from a great height."
Although her father, an encyclopedia-salesman-turned-minister, comes across as an insatiable, narcissistic monster, it's Harrison's mother who turns out to be the unlikely villain of the piece, and the true object of incestuous desire. She and Harrison's father married young and impetuously; he left before their daughter was a year old. Harrison's mother pulled an emotional disappearing act herself, creating in her daughter the familiar, poisonous brew of anger, despondency, self-loathing and anorexia.
Years later, the longed-for, long-absent father comes back to plant that loathsome kiss on his beautiful, blond, grown-up daughter. It's only when her mother dies of cancer that Harrison finds the strength to end the affair and come to terms with the fact that her mother, not her father, is the parent whose love she really craved. Probably the most shocking scene in the book features Harrison fondling her mother's corpse in its casket: "I touch her chest, her arms, her neck; I kiss her forehead and her fingertips ... I slip my hand down as far as I can, past her knees, past the hem of her white dress. I want to touch and know all of her."
Mostly, however, The Kiss is not long on flash or useful revelation. Maybe Harrison needed to write it, to exorcise those family demons (though she's done this at least once before, and in more detail, in her novel Thicker Than Water). Maybe. But when her demons go, they go quietly, and it's up to publishing's PR machine -- and readers hypersensitized to a hot topic -- to supply the pyrotechnics the book itself lacks.--Jennifer Howard
“Only a writer of extraordinary gifts could bring so much light to bear on so dark a matter, redeeming it with the steadiness of her gaze and the uncanny, heartbreaking exactitude of her language.”—Tobias Wolff, author of This Boy’s Life
“Beautifully written . . . jumping back and forth in time yet drawing you irresistibly toward the heart of a great evil.”—The New York Times
“Like all good literature, The Kiss illuminates something that we knew already, while also teaching us things we had not even suspected.”—Los Angeles Times
“A darkly beautiful book, fearless and frightening, ironic and compassionate.”—Mary Gordon, author of Circling My Mother
“Harrison’s story is her own, but it is also a brilliant fiction, densely mythic, sometimes almost liturgical sounding and raw. She is both author and protagonist of a dark pilgrim’s progress.”—The Atlanta Journal and Constitution
Read an Excerpt
We meet at airports. We meet in cities where we've never been before. We meet where no one will recognize us.
One of us flies, the other brings a car, and in it we set out for some destination. Increasingly, the places we go are unreal places: the Petrified Forest, Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon -- places as stark and beautiful and deadly as those revealed in satellite photographs of distant planets. Airless, burning, inhuman.
Against such backdrops, my father takes my face in his hands. He tips it up and kisses my closed eyes, my throat. I feel his fingers in the hair at the nape of my neck. I feel his hot breath on my eyelids.
We quarrel sometimes, and sometimes we weep. The road always stretches endlessly ahead and behind us, so that we are out of time as well as out of place. We go to Muir Woods in northern California, so shrouded in blue fog that the road is lost; and we drive down the Natchez Trace into deep, green Mississippi summer. The trees bear blossoms big as my head; their ivory petals drift to the ground and cover our tracks.
Separated from family and from the flow of time, from work and from school; standing against a sheer face of red rock one thousand feet high; kneeling in a cave dwelling two thousand years old; watching as a million bats stream from the mouth of Carlsbad Caverns into the purple dusk -- these nowheres and no-times are the only home we have.
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