Review: The Vanishers, by Heidi Julavits

tumblr_m0f2nacjQW1r5ik1zo1_400>>Published: March 2012

>>Finally got around to it: February 2013

I was wearing my silver party boots, though I now considered them simply boots. The last party I’d attended I’d been felled by such a gutting attack of vertigo that I’d been forced to spend the night in the stairwell of the hostess’s apartment building, the flights of steps throbbing above me like a stressed vascular system. The last date I’d been on I’d bled from the mouth when kissed. My last visit to a restaurant I’d spent voiding my intestines in the unisex bathroom. Whereas I’d once been able to infiltrate other people’s lives and heads while I remained unknown to them, now the opposite was true. Everyone was an impenetrable stranger to me, while I proved a livid advertisement for myself. My symptoms were an ugly secret I couldn’t help but share. Save to go to my job or the occasional doctor appointment or yoga class taught by the soothing adherents of a Canadian named John, I’d become a hermit. If I could not prevent the nausea, the insomnia-provoking pricks of light on the insides of my eyelids, the canker sores, the explosive bowel, the numb extremities, the swollen joints, the eczema-covered hands, I could at least limit the unattractive way that people came to know me when I was anything but alone.

***

Julia Severn is a student at New Hampshire’s prestigious Institute of Integrated Parapsychology—colloquially known as the Workshop. The Workshop is a school for psychics, and Julia was, upon entry, considered one of their more talented recruits. Early in her academic career, Julia is assigned the role of stenographer to her mentor—the much-despised Madame Ackerman, who sees in Julia’s talent a threat to her own standing within the school and the larger psychic community. While documenting Madame Ackerman’s regressions, through which she is able to psychically transpose herself into different times and places, Julia’s gifts are revealed to the jealous matriarch.

Fearful of her protégé’s power, Madame Ackerman inflicts upon Julia a vicious, debilitating psychic attack, which leaves the student a washed-up, self-medicating mess living a pointless New York existence working as an exhibition model for a flooring company. In the months following the attack and her dropping out of the Workshop, Julia is propositioned by a mysteriously aggravating young woman named Alwyn and an academic named Colophon to help track down a missing avant-garde artist, Dominique Varga, who may or may not have known Julia’s mother—who killed herself when Julia was only a month old—for a brief period of time. Along the way, Julia encounters vanishing films—a sort of recorded suicide note, videotaped farewells for those wishing to remove themselves from reality—psychic rehab centres, and unexpected academic success at the hands (and mind) of her toxic self.

There are a great many more details and detours along the way, few of which hold any sense of urgency or self-reflection. The Vanishers succeeds entirely on the strength of Julavits’s sly, sardonic tone—which also, ironically enough, plays a significant part in its undoing. Make no mistake: the language is fork-tongued and often amusing (far too few authors make use of the always-delicious “mendacious”), but what begins as an exciting, altered perspective on the paranormal-made-real becomes, during the book’s third of six parts, decidedly mundane and seemingly disinterested in its own characters.

“The past is not the past if it always present. Memory is an act of murder.”

The Vanishers is in many ways about the many faces of memory—how it is at once illuminating, deceptive, destructive, and manipulative. Psychics, in Julavits world, are (forgive me) the mediums for this exploration. Their abilities are sorely underused as a means for merely dissecting the tricks of memory and how it is so frequently distorted by the frustrations of family. It is also about mothers and daughters, specifically—mothers pushing away their daughters, daughters becoming their mothers; mothers killing themselves, daughters killing their memories of.

It was honestly difficult for me to pull more from this title than what I’ve written above because, interestingly enough for a book about emotional and psychic penetration, I found it to be rather emotionally distant—so much so that I felt distracted by its chilly exterior. No single character felt accessible on any level. The book’s writing, while obviously lovingly crafted, trades depth, momentum, and vulnerability for humour and a plot overburdened, in the end, by detail and quick transitions of location and circumstance.

The Vanishers is a portrait of an intriguing idea painted with simple, clean strokes, when what I really wanted, what I felt this novel sorely needed, was a little mess and imprecision—an emotional core revealed, unhidden behind such delicate craftwork.

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