Heidi Julavits’s The Vanishers is a good novel, but not a feel-good novel. At times it went so far as to make me feel as if I was inhabiting the world of its sickly protagonist: I felt itchy. I felt nauseous. It didn’t help that I read most of the book on a 4 hour train ride north from Manhattan to Vermont, the Lovecraftian landscape providing an appropriately eerie backdrop for this novel of the occult. Like the protagnist, I wondered, had a psychic attack happened to me?
Julia Severn, a 26 year old student at the Institute of Integrated Parapsychology (or, the Workshop), is lucky enough to land a job transcribing the psychic visions of the school’s star professor, Madame Ackerman. Madame Ackerman is given the assignment of (psychically) tracking down the combination on a safe supposedly containing film footage from Dominique Varga, a controversial experimental filmmaker, an assignment she is unable to fulfill, because she is psychically blocked. Unwittingly, Julia, using her own psychic abilities, discovers the combination, and passes it off as Madame Ackerman’s vision.
Once Madame Ackerman catches on to this deception, Julia is promptly demoted from Stenographer to Archivist and given a series of menial organizational tasks that even the lowliest of interns would balk at. Julia gets an unexpected invite to Madame Ackerman’s birthday party, where she is seriously hurt by the professor during a psychic party game. Her health deteriorates rapidly, and she’s forced to drop out, move to Manhattan, and take up work in a furniture showroom. It’s here that she’s tracked down by the people who hired Madame Ackerman to find the combination. They insist that Julia is being psychically attacked by Madame Ackerman, and convince her to go into hiding at a retreat center in Vienna—but not before making a Vanishing film, a sort of cinematic suicide note for those who don’t want to die but want disappear and start over. More spooky instances ensue once she arrives at the retreat center: strange emails containing video attachments of a mysterious woman on a bed, an encounter with a wolf, her friendship with the bizarre plastic surgery patient Borka, whom tabloids once claimed had a diamond embedded in her cheek. Julia becomes personally invested in learning more about Varga when she discovers her mother, who committed suicide when she was a month old, may have known her.
Heidi Julavits creates a dazzlingly rich world for these characters. No one ever sits down in a chair, they sit in a Barcelona chair. The lobby isn’t marble, it’s palissandro bluette marble (“a stone touted for its properties of thought amplification”, naturally). She has a Flaubertian knack for painting a scene in a single sentence, for example: “We slalomed her bags between lobby columns, past a quadrant of club chairs occupied by postsurgical patients in headscarves, cards fanned before their bruised faces, legs slung to the side as though riding horses through a copse of spectral trees.” There is no need to suspend disbelief, because Julavits has convinced you that all these things exist—cleverly peppering the real in with her own inventions.
“Your generation is so quick to blame other women for its problems,” bemoans The Breck Girl, an aging hair model, towards the end of The Vanishers. The statement juts out as uncharacteristically lucid compared to the rest of the book, whose zigzagging plot is inhabited by a predominantly female cast of characters speaking in circles and deceiving one another. It also illustrates one of the larger themes in The Vanishers: the honest, fresh-faced rookie pitted against her bitchy senior, and finally coming out on top. It’s a common trope in popular culture, and one that Julavits subverts. The women of The Vanishers are depressed, but also wicked and clever. Think Sylvia Plath. Think Francesca Woodman. By the end of the book it’s clear that Julia was more attacker than victim.
Most of the authors of other female rivalry plots are male, and, as a result, many of the spats involve, to some extent, a romantic interest, generally also male. There is no love interest in The Vanishers. While there are nods to the sexual conquests of the characters, the only sex scenes are the sadistic ones portrayed in Dominique Varga’s snuff films. Julia is often too sick to feel any sort of sexual desire—the story is, after all, “about how other people can become sick by knowing you.” It’s rare to see actual tenderness, even between friends. In one scene, Julia describes a maternal peck on the forehead from Borka: “She pressed her mouth against my skull so forcefully that I could feel her teeth.” The only real compassion comes from Julia’s father and stepmother, both perpetually concerned and supportive, but, like most parents of gifted psychics, also slightly clueless.
Despite all this, The Vanishers, as the title suggests, is more about what isn’t there than what is. Julia’s mother is a constant presence in the novel, though even Julia knows very little about her. Madame Ackerman appears in the first few scenes but is predominantly absent throughout the story. Dominique Varga only appears on film and in Julia’s visions, though she, too, is a fully-formed character. This absence is appropriate for a novel about psychics, who have the power to intuit things they can’t see in the physical sense of the word. Julavits doesn’t give Julia unlimited access to these missing people, however: she is unable to intuit anything about her mother, though she tries. Madame Ackerman is merely spectral presence in her visions, and Julia is never quite sure where she is after dropping out of the Workshop.
The most refreshing aspect of The Vanishers is that Julavits doesn’t do what many contemporary fiction writers writing under the veil of fantasy do: use magic as a metaphor. She explores feminism, the Uncanny, grief, and a number of other themes, but never with the intention that psychics stand for anything other than psychics. Julavits was inspired to write the book after reading the account of a psychic attack from the 1930s. The fact that she wholeheartedly believes in these powers as something real rather than symbolic gives her the space to explore these other concepts in the realm of these characters she’s created. It also makes the reader believe. After finishing the book, I began to wonder: was that itch on my arm from a mosquito bite, or had I pissed someone off?