For all that we think of our world as somehow post-feminist, the words “women’s fiction” and “high literature” are still seen to occupy different real estate, and I don’t need to say which of these rents space seventeen floors below the penthouse. Heidi Julavits has spent much of her career as a writer of fiction — this is her fourth novel — using the brute strength of her considerable intellect and ambitious style to winch the nonworking elevator to the top of the building. In most of her work, the world of female concerns becomes, simply, the world.
In The Uses of Enchantment (2006), Julavits turned a surveyor’s eye on the emotional life of girls at the brink of womanhood, unsure how to get there after the road signs were unscrupulously switched by adults who should have been more considerate guides. Here she coined the style of compression she uses to impressive effect in her new novel, and for many of the same psychologically observant aims (“Part of her allure could be attributed to the fact that people felt self-congratulatory when they discovered it, as though this said something special about them and their unique powers of perception”).
With The Vanishers, Julavits continues the large project of employing fiction to advance a theory of startling truth: women’s inner lives are replete with destructive fury. The vaunted givers and nurturers of life pay dearly, psychically, for their gifts. In this novel the baleful forces usually directed inward take literal form, and the cast of characters injuring one another in inventive ways are, in fact, psychics, those who can see (and bleed from) the manifestations of mother-daughter hurt.
The first-person narrator is Julia Severn, a student at the Institute of Integrated Parapsychology (located in hippie-tweedy New Hampshire, of course) and the stenographer of its most celebrated professor, Madame Ackermann. In a reverse case of anxiety of influence, Ackermann forces Julia, an obviously gifted psychic, to flee the academy. Julia undergoes her mentor’s brutal “psychic attack” — chronic debilitation resembling the mysterious twenty-first-century psychosomatic illnesses that seem to plague women exclusively — and is thenceforth pulled into an occult thriller’s action. The story takes us in turn to a film conference in New York, a “pricey psychic attack recovery center” that is also a plastic surgery hospital treating Hungarian landed gentry and a class known as “surgical impersonators” (in Vienna, heart of the psychoanalytic heartland), a Paris visited through astral projection, and a spa ominously situated in “Breganz-Belken.” And in the end, it is all because of Mommy. She (a suicide, hence the book’s frequent Plath quotations) is both the giver of life and of all the pain that follows.
Although fiction of the futurist or paranormal variety often suffers from a certain effortful specificity — protons, gravity, and time may behave in ways no Einstein could parse, but by gum here’s something clearly meant to be recognized as a Little Debbie snack cake — Julavits avoids the form’s faux flavor by hewing carefully to emotional truth. Instances of which may well be met by the reader with all the unlikely joy of hitting big on a scratch-off ticket:
…perhaps it was the crying woman’s mention of the unread library books, because truly there was nothing sadder, except a gift that a person has hand made for you, a scarf or a poncho, that, try as you might, you cannot ever see your way into wearing. This is when the cold indifference of the world envelops you, and makes you feel invigorated by emotion but also acutely alone. These moments of heartbreak for unwanted scarves and unread books can reveal to you, more than the inattention of any long dead mother, what it is to be alive.
Julavits has sometimes been called on the carpet for flaunting her smartness, but in these pages she is not showing off; she can’t help it. More to the point, it is of a piece with her enterprise: to create a vaulting novel of ideas. In fluid form, she advances the radical notion of an essential, and unsolvable, sadness that afflicts the state of being female, since if their only worldly currency is the time-stamped value of their bodies, women enact a tragedy every time they bear the daughters who will usurp it. Housing such a subject in the empty shell of a ridiculous pseudoscience shows Julavits a canny deployer of irony.
(She can also be as fun to settle down with as the Sunday crossword puzzle: Madame Ackermann’s story is braided with that of Dominique Varga, “the Leni Riefenstahl of France,” who toys avant-gardishly with porn (hmmm, 6 Across: Chantal Akerman?); Julia’s room overlooks Gutenberg Square, a tip of the author’s hat to the history of books; count how many chairs make cameo appearances, from Barcelona to Biedermeier.)
It would be annoying if The Vanishers were merely up to this sort of literate gamesmanship, or even to highlighting Julavits’s exceptional talent at writing smarty-pants provocateuses, who figure with enough frequency in her work that we might venture a guess at the author’s own conversational style. Rather, the book’s decorative nature — reading it can feel like you’re admiring housewares in the type of high-end shop where every item is the best of its class — plays profitably against its raw gravity. At one point the enrapt anger and bootless desire that are the two laces in the mother-daughter knot find expression thus: “…a violent wave of need surged through me. A need to pull her hair, tear her face to pieces with my teeth. A need to kiss her.” A disfigurement, and a kiss. What a pretty collision they make.