The Binding Chair
BY KATHRYN HARRISON
Random House; 322 pages; $24.95
Nothing that the novelist and memoirist Kathryn Harrison has written so far prepares you for her sprawling new historical novel. After all, her 1991 debut, Thicker Than Water, was a contemporary American tale -- the story of a sensitive and troubled young woman who triumphantly survives the wounds inflicted by her elegant, emotionally distant mother and her creepy, sexually exploitative father. Then came Exposure (1993), which -- although it, too, was a contemporary American tale -- boldly turned to the subject of a sensitive and troubled young woman who triumphantly finds emotional closure despite an absent mother and a creepy, sexually exploitative father. In a startling departure, Poison (1995), set in seventeenth-century Spain, told the story of not one but two troubled, sensitive young women who, haunted by memories of their beautiful and/or distant mothers, manage to achieve self-knowledge despite being sexually exploited and/or emotionally thwarted by creepy men. Finally, in 1997, Harrison produced her most strikingly original work: The Kiss, a searing account of the author's own experiences as a sensitive and troubled young woman who triumphantly seeks emotional closure despite her victimization at the hands of dysfunctional parents: in this particular case, I believe, an elegant but emotionally aloof mother and a creepy, sexually exploitative father.
What, you wondered, could be next?
I don't want to give too much away about The Binding Chair, a melodrama set in turn-of-the-century Shanghai and on "the enviably sparkling coast of southern France," but I don't think there's any harm in revealing that the novel's title hints at some daring new themes. It refers to the once-traditional Chinese custom of foot-binding: mutilating and miniaturizing the feet of well-born young girls for reasons that were thought to be not only aesthetic but, as you learn here, erotic as well. (The ol' bound-foot-in-the-rectum-during-fellatio trick, daintily described by the author, may not seem quite so erotic when performed with normal-size feet.) This, in other words, is a book about an entire culture of delicate, sensitive young women who are exploited by creepy men.
In The Binding Chair, as in her earlier historical novel, the author intertwines the stories of two very different women -- one a naïve victim, the other a sexual sophisticate who's ultimately punished for her assertiveness -- in order to underscore her single familiar theme. Poison contrasts a feisty, sexually fulfilled Aragonese peasant girl with the French-born queen of Spain, Maria Luisa, a sexually repressed bird forced to live in a rococo cage. The Binding Chair's protagonist is May (née Chao-tsing) Cohen, an icily beautiful Chinese woman whose "nervous, delicate nostrils" and crippled feet belie, inevitably, a feisty toughness. May flees the stultifying servility of her conventional first marriage and becomes a prostitute; she ends up marrying her most devoted client, a wealthy Jewish man named Arthur Cohen whose family has settled in Shanghai. The other heroine is Alice Benjamin, May's "dark, fierce" niece by marriage, whose "too full, too hungry" lips alert you to the fact that she has no intention of letting drab convention come between her and her orgasms. The novel cross-cuts between flashbacks to May's miserable stint as the fourth wife of a wealthy merchant, her daring flight, the tragic death of her and Arthur's daughter, and Alice's adolescent rebellion against her conventional family. Alice ends up as May's ward on the Riviera, trying to get her aunt into a pair of orthopedic shoes and having liberating sex with a dashing White Russian doctor in passages that, it must be said, are unlikely to make this book one to read with one hand. ("His longest toe was the first one, the big toe; hers was the second.")
If there's something vaguely Princess Daisy-ish about The Binding Chair's plot, it's because beneath the meticulously researched references to the décor of the compartments on the Great Siberian Express, or to Fang Hsun's Classifications of the Qualities of Fragrant Lotuses (an ancient manual on foot-binding), there beats the heaving heart of a Judith Krantz novel -- one of those "sweeping," rags-to-riches, triumph-and-tragedy stories that are written in order to confirm the fantasies (you, too, can start out as nothing and end up living on the Riviera -- and to hell with men) or anxieties (you're basically just your husband's emotionally crippled sex slave) of their readership. The Binding Chair, complete with fascinating cultural exotica and attractive -- and, of course, feisty -- heroines, is, in fact, a good, juicy read.
So is Krantz. But Harrison aspires to be much more than a "women's novelist," and her writing does sometimes rise above romance-channel clichés to attain literary vigor. Admirers of the author's earlier work have praised her lyrical, poetic style, which I take it refers to sentences like "What strange alchemy is this, the radiation treatment?" But Harrison can, in fact, produce genuine insights when she's not so intent on being arty and poetic. When May first comes to Shanghai, she stays in a hotel where, for the first time, she encounters European women, taking long, emancipated strides with their big, unbound feet: "May listened to their heels strike the floor with the force of horses' hooves." Only a real novelist would reveal May's moment of culture-shock aurally rather than visually. And there are nuggets of perception about the strange ways in which men and women relate: "Each time Arthur entered May," Harrison writes, "it seemed to him that he was about to understand something." That's nice.
Unfortunately, there are too few moments like this in The Binding Chair, whose serious aspirations are undercut by its author's willingness to sacrifice nuances of motivation and psychology to slogans about victimized women. "Was not suffering the lot of females?" May muses at the opening of the novel. "How could it be that marriage . . . was to be nothing more than wretched servitude?" Even the period trimmings, you come to realize, are just an afterthought -- a by-product of the author's search for a really vile, patriarchal mise-en-scène. The Binding Chair tends to wear its late-Imperial costume either too sloppily or too ostentatiously: It wobbles between banal cliché ("dirty, seething Shanghai") and effortful touches that, instead of seamlessly inserting you into a strange culture, call attention to the many hours the author has spent in the library. ("Had the poison imparted to his skin an unnaturally white smoothness recalling the cheap celluloid collars worn by gendarmes on their evenings off?")
Worse, Harrison's reductive point comes at the price of coherent characterization and narrative credibility. In order to keep her plot going, she creates a rather artificial conflict between Alice and May (who, you'd think, were two peas in a pod); and at the novel's climax, she has the tough old May make a sacrifice for her niece that is wholly at odds with everything we know about this shrewd lady -- a canny and tenacious survivor if ever there was one. But then, the author is so determined to have her female characters end up as victims that with the exception of full-lipped Alice, every significant female character suffers horribly or dies -- by fire, Spanish flu, murder, or suicide -- as does the one, admittedly nebbishy man who likes and understands women. (Harrison's men tend to be either wholly villainous or completely ineffectual: She's never tried to create an interesting, strong, sympathetic male.) When Arthur Cohen first visits May in her brothel, he comes as the well-intentioned representative of a humanitarian organization called the Foot Emancipation Society, yet almost immediately he becomes sexually obsessed with her "violated, broken, sometimes pungent feet." Men, Harrison seems to be saying, secretly prize women's pain; whatever men may say about wanting to emancipate women, they prefer them crippled.
Although it brought her a good deal of attention, the publication of The Kiss may well have been a bad career move for someone aspiring to be taken seriously as a novelist. From the start, there was something flat and unresolved about Harrison's fiction -- she was content to show pathetic females without coming to any conclusions about female suffering that you couldn't get from US magazine ("Anorexia may begin as an attempt to make myself fit my mother's ideal . . ." etc.). The Kiss suggested that Harrison was using her fiction as a kind of corrective replaying of her past emotional trauma, a way of compulsively reasserting how horrible her parents were -- and how attractively vulnerable she is. (Her author photos have the wounded-but-stunningly-beautiful quality you associate with the better fragrance ads.)
Good fiction can certainly come from the darker regions of an author's psyche, but a real novel is much more than a Xerox of the author. Harrison's failure thus far to see in the world anything but her "issues" -- however legitimate they may be -- continues to cripple her work. There are signs that Harrison is capable of a genuine novelistic leap; but so far, like May Cohen, she has taken only very tiny steps.