Imagine a world that is just like this world, but with the addition of something magical. That reserved, mysterious boy who sparkles in the sunlight is a vampire. Wizards and witches exist, and they have hormones. In the preface to Heidi Julavits’s dark and complex latest novel, she asks us to take a similar imaginative leap: psychic powers are real. People can make other people sick with their minds. You can attack or be attacked.
Julia Severn is a promising second-year initiate at the Institute of Integrated Parapsychology. She has been awarded a much-coveted spot as stenographer to Madame Ackermann, the school’s star professor, but since her appointment, the famed psychic has been totally blocked. Julia attends the Madame’s afternoon naps, ready to record her regressions—psychic forays into the past—but nothing happens. To complicate things, Julia is in love with the professor, and the professor looks just like Julia’s late mother, who committed suicide when Julia was an infant. Desperate to retain her position, Julia, who is only beginning to realize the extent of her powers, tries to pass off her own psychic findings as her mentor’s. She is caught and severely punished.
Unable to continue her studies, Julia takes leave from the Institute, only to enter a spiral of physical and mental deterioration. On 23 pills a day, she stumbles through real and paranormal crises that eventually lead her to avail herself of the services of a shadowy company called TK Ltd. She vanishes, but her journey continues—into the nature of her mysterious ailments and into the mystery of her mother, the one person Julia, for all her psychic intuition, has never been able to understand.
Despite its fantasy overlay, The Vanishers is ultimately a deeply felt exploration of female exceptionalness, both good and bad. Julavits’s overly-attuned psychics and artists have extraordinary powers accompanied by deep existential sorrows. Suicide (and vanishing, its double) feature heavily, with frequent references to Plath’s oven, the pebbles in Woolf’s pockets, and, later in the story, that at-once self-destroying and self-freeing business of being a porn actress.
Cross your eyes a bit, and the psychic powers which initially seem like magic spells can be mistaken for exaggerated instances of feminine intuition. We see in Julia’s suffering and struggle something very real.
Oddly, the novel that occurred to me most often while reading The Vanishers was David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Not for style, nor, mercifully, length, but in certain echoing themes ranging from the general (depression, addiction, self-medication) to the very specific (avant-garde film, facial deformity). The damaged savants of Julavits’s Institute seem very much like those at Wallace’s Enfield Tennis Academy. While far from holding up as a general comparison, in certain, hyper-focused moments here and there, The Vanishers feels like Jest from a female perspective.
With The Vanishers, Julavits has created a pitch-perfect and often harrowing portrait of a postmodern woman who is equal parts victim and antagonist, an unwitting player in a psychological war both real and imagined.