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Private Eye : EXPOSURE: By Kathryn Harrison (Random House: $20; 219 pp.)

February 14, 1993|Vince Passaro | Passaro, whose fiction and criticism has been published in many newspapers and magazines, is working on a novel

Kathryn Harrison, on the heels of her disturbing and elegiac first novel, "Thicker Than Water," has written a second, "Exposure," that plays off a newsworthy subject and creates an intense portrait of an artist's (and a father's) capacity for exploitation and betrayal.

The novel's damaged and unraveling heroine is Ann Rogers, daughter of a renowned photographer, Edgar Rogers, who made his fame with morbid, suggestive and visually stunning black and white pictures taken of her when she was a child and a blossoming teen. The similarities of Ann's situation to that of the children of the increasingly notorious photographer Sally Mann instantly suggest themselves: Mann takes beautiful and rather unnerving photos of her children--many of them, like Edgar's of Ann, elaborately posed recreations of actual domestic moments, often involving death-like postures and various bruises and wounds. Childhood sexuality recurs also as a motif. A great deal of controversy has arisen about these photos; Harrison's novel, aside from its considerable literary merits, contributes to that ongoing debate in tangential, dreamlike ways.

That Ann has been severely damaged by her father remains the emotional fulcrum on which the novel propels itself, although Harrison leaves room for an interpretation in which it was the man's joyless distance and brutal disregard, rather than his art, that did his daughter in. Most likely it was both. The story takes place when Ann is an adult, marginally coping with her father's suicide, which occurred when she was 19, her marriage and her career--she too is a photographer, and a partner in a successful videotaping outfit hired for weddings and such. She is also a diabetic, addicted to speed, a compulsive and very high-end shoplifter; her eyesight is going, a particular frightening side-effect of her condition, given what she does for a living, but this is not enough to get her off drugs or make her take minimal care of her health. She is falling apart at her job and letting her marriage slide into a chasm of secrecy and alienation. We observe her, through a series of third-person fragments, during the weeks leading to a major showing of her father's work in the Museum of Modern Art, a show which will mark the first time many long-suppressed photographs--the most sexually explicit ones, of Ann as a teen-ager, masturbating, making out with her boyfriend, et cetera--will be seen. The show sends her into a frantic period of dramatic self-destruction, culminating, just after the opening night party, in a grand larceny that is sure to get her caught and does.

Harrison weaves into this story a number of other narrative voices, first-person memories of Ann's childhood, court documents, letters and medical diagnoses, all of which point to Ann's profoundly unhappy childhood. The overall effect of this cutting back and forth is appropriately disjointed and emotionally relentless, a narrative montage that mimics Edgar Rogers' photographs, obsessive and unsettling. Harrison's achievement resides in her coercion of her readers into seeing more--far more--of a painful life than we think we wish to see, a conviction that is itself belied by our fascination, our inability to stop looking, our refusal to turn away.

One of the bedrock strengths of "Exposure" is its corporal reality--Harrison mires Ann's psychic dilemma in a tangle of physical details; each of her crises relates in one way or another to her body. For her diabetes Ann must twice daily measure her blood sugar and continually modulate her diet against the insulin she takes by injection in her thighs. She often fails to do this, and her history is one of using her disease, when she's under severe emotional strain, as an instrument of near suicide. At the same time, being accustomed to dosing herself, it feels natural for her to treat her emotional incapacities in the same way she deals with her diabetes--fitfully, with speed, a quarter hit for low stress management, a half or full for anxieties higher on the scale. Her compulsive thievery too has a physical aspect; the clothes she steals become a kind of armor against a world she rightly sees as obsessed with looking at her; she makes herself a master of the quick change, often slipping off one outfit and putting on another in a moving taxi. She leaves the discards in the cab marking her trail.

And her central problem, her father, and his coldblooded use of her as an aesthetic object, denying her his love or even his basic friendliness as an equal human being, has an ultimate corporeal result: his photographs, gigantic prints of Ann and her mother (who died, hemorrhaging, in childbirth), close-ups of a wrist or a breast or a slashed and blood-dripping leg. The show at the Modern, which has so spun Ann out of control, is a landscape of bodily obsessions, the viewers' eyes filled with Ann's limbs and grimaces.

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