If a book is as strong as its strongest character, Kathryn Harrison’s On Sunset has the advantage of many to choose from: the grandmother— a British Jewish heiress of Baghdadi extraction, the kind and adventuresome grandfather who helped tame the wilds of the Alaskan wilderness before it became a state, the colorful Sassoon family who were known as the “Rockefellers of the East”, getting rich selling opium to the Chinese and selling futures in rubber plantations across Asia, eventually having fifty British, Chinese, and European servants to wait on a family of four.
But stronger even than these are the hidden characters in On Sunset, which is possessed with faraway demons who are described in spare, poetic language that raises more questions than it answers. Who is this narrator, outside of the context of her family? Who is this mother that drifts in and out, loutish, promiscuous, and profligate? Who is this father, the subject of a previous controversial memoir, who barely appears?
Money is really the central character of the book. Money controls the climax: the meeting of the grandmother and the grandfather— she a consumer of high-end goods, he a Cockney-accented trader who worked his way up to represent those goods for sale in New York. The money guides the denouement, the process by which the family loses their precious family artifacts, loses the scandalous polyamorous lesbian great-aunt, loses finally the precious home “on Sunset” that stands for all of the wealth of the Sassoon family, its great line ending in this mother, this daughter, this book.
Suffice to say: this book is haunted. More than most memoirs, this book is surrounded by generations of ghosts, so much that we don’t know Harrison’s father’s name, and we don’t know her mother’s job. We know the dates of birth and lineages of all of the relatives who put us here, on this brink of the precipice, in the events that lead to the tragedy of the hurtful mother, the lost home. The young Harrison lives in a house which is furnished in reverse: the paintings are removed slowly from the walls in descending order of value, as are the ivories, figurines, furniture. The house is dissolving as she grows, becoming the food which becomes the girl.
Behind all of the money is SSB, Solomon Sassoon Benjamin. Behind Benjamin is the great crime by which he made his great fortune: by getting the Chinese addicted to opium, sometimes through violence – his henchmen forcing them to smoke at knifepoint – descending finally into this family who live in a Robert Byrd-designed house in what is now mid-Wilshire in Los Angeles, frozen in time Grey Gardens-style, with her grandmother and mother brawling (sometimes literally) over the shoe budget.
That dirty money animates all of the people and gives the story color and life, from the gay uncle who imparts his most important life lesson: “most fragrances are execrable, some are tolerable, and the very few without flaw are made by Guerlain,” to the grandmother, who has very definite opinions on how young ladies should be clad (in grand British style). The gay uncle, a contemporary and friend of Gore Vidal, Jean Genet, Deborah Kerr, and others, is the most vivid of characters. The book features a photo of him at his eightieth birthday party, wearing nothing but a pair of huge white angel wings, like a Victoria’s Secret model gone mad, his soft penis and pubes bared for all to see years after his death. But it doesn’t seem improper to mention this; he seems like the kind of person who would have liked us to notice. “The wings were a gift, so I had to try them on, and as I wasn’t wearing anything that went with them, I took it all off.” If Harrison considers another book of family history, I hope he gets his own pages.
Harrison’s generosity towards her past was clear, but so was her frustration with her mother and grandmother, whose warring and wounding were central to the story of her childhood. When describing her relatives other than her mother and grandmother, Harrison’s eye likes what it sees: “What [the camera] sees summons artistry, even love. Some of the prints are hand-tinted, cherry blossoms washed pink, pale lips made red.”
The grandfather gets this more loving treatment: “All through his long life, mind-over-matter positivism served my grandfather as nothing else had – carried him out of misfortune and into what he always called ‘opportunity’, buoyed him across an ocean and over wastelands of ice, tested him and called him north toward all that answered his longing. Beauty that was frozen, incorruptible.” Of her mother, she characterizes her best in a few sentences at the end: “We saw her at a stoplight once, and my grandfather honked and I waved, but she was putting on eye makeup in the rearview mirror.” Vanity, folly, selfishness, lack of compassion, all in one sentence.
The structure of the book is confounding. It’s a digression among characters and a series of dialogues with her grandmother in which Harrison’s child-self repeatedly asks questions, with all of the false starts and inaccuracies that implies. I do not know Harrison as I would like to, even though I have read her other books. I don’t quite get how Christian Science played into their past, or how the child-Harrison influenced the adult one, or facts about the external world, like what Los Angeles in the 1960s was like or the history of the Shanghai International Territory. The book is as cloistered as Harrison’s home when was a child, locked up tight with her grandmother, accompanied by songs from the last century, old velvet dresses, and imported British goods.
The pacing is odd, and it’s unclear if it’s building towards the grandparents meeting each other or to the sale of the house, or both. But the writing is lovely and we are propelled through the pages to see what happens: when they will meet, when the house will be gone forever, what beautiful turn of phrase Harrison will conjure next.
As Harrison says, with a wink to the reader: “I feel no allegiance to this hypothetical child who complicates what is simple.” She is not this hypothetical child: she is a grown-up who does not complicate what is simple, but complicates only as necessary.