Heidi Julavits’ latest novel The Vanishers is provocative and full of hefty, even academic ideas—at its best, a nouveau feminist manifesto.
Heidi Julavits creates worlds in her fiction where vulnerable female heroes double as psychological weapons. They vanish (as in The Uses of Enchantment) or are entrapped (as in The Effect of Living Backwards) only to be eventually unholstered, cocked and loaded, ready to inflict a little damage of their own. In her new novel, The Vanishers, Julavits creates the world of parapsychology, where certain people possess special psychic abilities to conjure nightmares for others. They can inflict slow, withering physical harm from afar—literally making their enemies sic—just by using their minds.
Julia Severn is a gifted psychic whose energies burn out streetlamps and short-circuit appliances. She studies under the powerful, but aging leader in the field, Madame Ackermann, at The Institute of Integrated Parapsychology, otherwise known simply as The Workshop. The relationship between Julia and her mentor is tense from the start. Ackermann’s intent is unclear. Is she truly disappointed in Julia’s performance or envious of her younger student’s potential? One thing is certain in this wondrously braided Julavitsian passage: the relationship between the two women is special.
And yet, over Franz, who had been regressed ten times (once without Madame Ackermann’s assistance), over Maurice who was descended from the famous Moriarty, over Rebecca, whose automatic writing samples were, according to Madame Ackermann, stained glass windows into the astral abyss, I had been chosen. By my idol, one of parapsychological scholarship’s most renowned stars, a woman who’d been awarded, at the age of twenty-eight, the occult equivalent of a MacArthur and who heart-scramblingly resembled—with her black veil of hair and winking, shards-of-Mica eyes that suggested a smile was forthcoming even when it never was—an enigmatic photograph I’d cherished of my mother. I had been chosen. And I could not, I decided, be unchosen.
Soon Julia is kicked out of the institute and lives in Manhattan where she works as a model at a flooring company sitting in a showroom chair for eight hours a day. She’s afflicted by migraines and eczema. She’s addicted to pills, and she makes bad decisions with men. She befriends a woman named Alwyn, a former Workshop member who theorizes that Madame Ackermann is causing Julia’s ailments. And thus the powder keg of female rivalry is lit, and Julia begins to train her psychic powers with the intention of making the Madame sorry she ever messed with her former protégé.
The Vanishersis great fun. Many of Julavits’s characters speak like double agents in an especially metaphysical Cold War spy novel. There are characters with names like Colophon (is that a brand of food processor?). And Julia’s stay at a psychic recovery center named the Goergen resembles a cross between a season of Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew and a surreal stay at a spa resort. Julavits never forgets to balance issues of thematic import with humor and fresh wit.
That said, The Vanishers is neither a comedy nor a potboiler. At its heart, the book is closer in genre to a psychological horror flick that comments on the war games mothers play with daughters and vice-versa. There are just a handful of male characters in The Vanishers, and even Julia’s father, though his few appearances are poignant, is overshadowed by his more insightful new wife, Blanche. Meanwhile, the many female characters that inhabit the novel’s second half all represent portentous surrogate mothers (or surrogates of surrogates) that reflect Julia’s fraying control over her psychic abilities. The central question of the book is exposed in this passage:
Because I’d decided—this kind of hating, this kind of fault-finding, this kind of symbolic matricide, it had to stop. If I’d formed an allegiance to Irenke, it was because I’d decided that to befriend Irenke was to ensure that my mother’s death did not perpetuate more pointless, self-defeating rivalries among women who, in the end, were only killing themselves.
The plot takes some time to serve up the climactic mano-a-mano between Madame Ackermann and Julia, and Julavits doesn’t take the easy way out, nearly letting a prominent subplot take over the book, before weaving it back into the main plot, perhaps a little too quickly. The Vanishers is a provocative novel, full of hefty, even academic ideas—at its best, a nouveau feminist manifesto. The Vanishers asks mothers and daughters, both literal and figurative: Can’t we all just get along?