In a 2003 manifesto published in The Believer magazine, Heidi Julavits made the case for a nuanced literary and critical environment in which reviewers neither tear down nor toady to their subjects, and readers keep open minds. This erudite, complex essay balances seriousness with a lightness of touch that endears its author to the reader.
The Vanishers, Julavits’s fourth novel, is equally endearing – wild and funny and macabre, with the propulsive energy of a good mystery but without the coziness and sense of foregone conclusions that can afflict that genre. And like any good fiction, it has an element of strangeness: The world we know is rotated a few degrees so that everything is both recognizable and slightly off-kilter.
Our protagonist, Julia Severn, is a novice psychic at a New Hampshire college, run by the charismatic Madame Ackermann, that resembles any hothouse graduate program (creative writing, say). The participants are more rivals than allies, their lust for a mentor’s approval predatory in its intensity, as Julia describes in a passage that shows off her creator’s satiric gifts:
“And thus we tried … in every superficial way to mimic her. We were rapt apprentices of the twisted cowl neck, the peevish cuticle nibble, the messy, pencil-stabbed chignon. We purchased cardigans in yellowed greens and tarry mascaras, we blended our own teas and sewed them into tiny muslin bags that we steeped in our chunky mugs and carried with us to class, our socked feet sliding, like hers, atop the wooden platforms of our Dr. Scholl’s sandals. We also slept around. We slept with everyone, but only once. We were, we told ourselves in moments when we felt most pathetic and unmoored, not just imitating Madame Ackermann, we were embracing the culture of the Workshop – the disloyalty, the distrust, the refusal to be known for fear of what people might actually come to know about you.
“It was a lonely time.”
Julia’s precocious talent exposes her to a “psychic attack” that sends her home to New York ravaged by an array of humiliating afflictions – a catalogue of symptoms of the dreadful allure that will appeal to late-night Googlers – and forced into near-seclusion until she’s approached by the first of several people who want to hijack her psychic abilities to track down the controversial artist/provocatrice Dominique Varga.
No plot summary would do justice to what ensues, and besides, half the fun is in trying to follow the twists and turns of Julia’s quest for health, maternal love and the mysterious Varga, a hunt that takes her to hilariously spooky mitteleuropean “clinics,” and then back to New York.
A witty, unreliable narrator whose impulsivity, lucky for us, propels her into trouble at every turn, Julia can, for a psychic, be awfully obtuse. (“Given my repeated failures to intuit when danger awaited me, it should come as no surprise to learn: I went.”) This selective blindness is driven by emotional need: Her mother committed suicide when she was a child, and Julia has longed to know her ever since. But even with her formidable psychic powers renewed Julia can reach anyone except her dead mother – it seems the woman doesn’t want to talk.
Julavits asks serious questions, always with fine comic timing. Is it worse to know that the one who abandoned you is alive or dead? Was Sylvia Plath a bad mother for leaving her children or a good one for protecting them? At what point does one woman’s admiration for another become the desire to annihilate her? Far from weighing the book down, these questions enhance its exuberant appeal.
If metaphors are occasionally forced to the point of preciousness (“wheedling a compact from her coat pocket”) and the narrative, though full of brio, is sometimes confusing, these are not serious impediments to enjoyment of a wildly intelligent book, which is, among other things, great fun. Books, Julavits says, are her religion, and this one will find believers.
Diana Fitzgerald Bryden is the author of No Place Strange. She is at work on her second novel, Tunapuna.