MAY 11, 2012
WE CAN’T HELP BUT JUDGE books by their covers — that’s what the covers are for. That of Heidi Julavits’s new novel, The Vanishers, is a Technicolor riot of flowers, a quilt of happy girliness all pinks and purples and yellows, and as lovely as it is, it gives a misleading impression of what’s inside. The Vanishers is not a story of happy girliness, and its hue is certainly not pink. This is a tale told in greys and ochres; there are a lot of shadows here. In this book, footpaths across a New England college quad don’t just meander, they “vivisect the campus,” and cameras don’t click, they make “little bird-skull-popping sounds.” The cover of The Vanishers should probably be pitch black.
At the center of the story is Julia Severn, a gifted pupil at the Workshop, a college for psychics in the small town of Warwick, New Hampshire. Julavits nails this cloistered academic scene perfectly; the Workshop could be any small liberal arts school with professors who feel underappreciated (one suggests a “reverse scholarship system, in which students would be charged for getting poor grades and monopolizing professors whose energies might be more worthily expended on Initiates of Promise,” arguing, “talentless people need to learn more, thus they should pay more.”) and a small claque of students forming cults around favored professors, most especially Madame Ackermann, with her “mixture of naivete and wiliness, her middle-parted night hair, and Eva Hesse Bavarian élan, her habit during class, of placing a foot on her chair and resting her chin atop a corduroyed knee.” Julia admits that all the Workshop students, herself included, “were in some form of love with her.”
Julia’s infatuation is more complicated than the others’. Madame Ackermann resembles Julia’s mother, who committed suicide when Julia was just a baby. Now Julia is fixated on her teacher, a fact Madame Ackermann is well aware of — they’re both psychics, after all. Their relationship becomes even more complicated when Julia, a relative novice, intercepts one of Madame Ackermann’s “throws” during a psychic parlor game known as SAD: “Spooky Action at a Distance,” thus threatening Ackermann’s status as the Big Clairvoyant on Campus. Mother figure or not, Madame Ackermann becomes pitted against Julia at a time when she needs help most.
The Vanishers is a quest story: one young woman in search of her missing mother. Despite her extrasensory abilities, Julia has never been able to reach her, a fact which reveals either a lack of skill or a lack of trying. Much of the book is concerned with Julia’s ambivalence around this issue. She wants to love her never-known mother, but she wants to hate her for leaving, too. Julia accuses her of feeling “worse for Sylvia Plath than for her two children,” and perhaps she does. But it remains a problem. As Julia sets out to solve what at first appears to be an unrelated mystery concerning a missing French feminist artist, she discovers that all roads lead back to her mother: There’s no escaping her. It’s a journey that takes her from rural New Hampshire to the old-world spas of Austria and to a Lost Film Conference in New York City, where “vanishing films” are screened — last testaments of people who, rather than kill themselves, simply film a goodbye to friends and family and then run away to start new lives. Along the way, Julia meets a series of enigmatic, dark-haired women who all seem to know something about her that she hasn’t yet discovered. The mystery at the heart of Julia’s story is not so much whether Julia will find her mother, but whether she wants to at all.
The complex plot of The Vanishers is ultimately less important than the novel’s overall tone. Julavits parks her readers in a setting that is slightly off-kilter but not entirely fantastical. The Vanishers is thoroughly Borgesian, harkening back to his detective stories like “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” and “The Garden of Forking Paths,” in which the stages of deduction take place within a universe that is constantly folded back upon itself. In these stories, competing forms of epistemology make the prospect of “solving” a mystery almost beside the point. In The Vanishers, the premise of psychic power is never questioned. “By the time I was eight I could darken streetlamps by walking beneath them, I could set off car and house alarms and inspire automatic garage doors to a state of rapid fibrillation.” This is just how some folks are. Yet, like Borges’s detectives, Julia’s talent for insight is also her trap. She finds clues everywhere — in this realm and beyond — but which among them holds real meaning? Ultimately, Julia’s search leads her to question the nature of being “psychic” itself. When finally confronted with all the puzzle pieces, Julia realizes, “I knew what I was going to find before I flipped to the final page, and not because I was psychic, but because I was no longer blind to what had been right in front of my own eyes.” The power of a daughter’s love for her mother is not supernatural, it’s the most natural thing in the world.
For the most part, Julavits’s love of language makes the details of The Vanishers a delight, as when she describes the Austrian spa with its “high-up circular windows, each one permitting a beam of light to bore through the moted air. These many dull moons marked our travel, and made me feel, as we scuffed our slippers over the tiles, as through we were midnight skaters following a river of dusty ice.” Sometimes it can be distracting, particularly when her penchant for overactive verbs leads to descriptions such as hands “oven-mitted by eczema” and “eyes starfished by mascara.” For the most part, however, Julavits’s playful way with words enriches a story that might otherwise be bleaker. Julia begins the book with a “frostbit complexion [and a] vinegar stare,” but she ends it healthier, if healthy means “being sickened by an illness known as you.”