REVIEW: The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits

By Dr. Phil’s standard, the women in Heidi Julavits’s latest novel The Vanishers all seem to need a crash course in healthy relationships. It begins with Julia Severn, a gifted psychic enrolled in the Institute of Integrated Parapsychology (aka the “Workshop”), an MFA-like program for psychics. She, like her other initiates (at least the female ones), has a girl crush on Madame Ackermann, one of the most gifted and darkly charismatic teachers at the Workshop. While Julia feels honored to be chosen as Madame Ackermann’s stenographer, she quickly realizes that the position is precarious. Madame Ackermann is hired to locate information on the provocative artist Dominique Varga, but her powers are fading with age. Julia picks up the slack, going on her own psychic adventures while her mentor dozes. The mentor/ mentee relationship quickly turns sour, and Julia leaves the Workshop suffering from the physical and mental manifestations of a “psychic attack.” As Julia points out, “People make people sick,” and this novel makes that literal. Julia takes a menial job in New York before she ends up at the Goegren, the Canyon Ranch for suffering psychics.

In Julavits’s novel, women are uniquely dangerous, and the mother/ daughter bond is poisonous, if not deadly. Julia’s mother committed suicide when Julia was an infant, and, as Julia embarks on her quest to locate more information about Varga, she confronts her ambivalent feelings about being abandoned by her mother. While Julia can delve into the lives of others, her mother’s life is uniquely obscured for her; she has never been able to locate her mother within the psychic realm. Julia’s father, a benignly absent-minded geologist, doesn’t want to talk to about her mother, preferring poignantly to remain reticent but truthful. Julia recognizes that a reconstruction of the past is always part fiction and that some truths are better left concealed.

Julavits is not afraid to delve into the darker aspects of female sympathy and competition, including the insidious way rivalry can masquerade as friendship. The novel is populated with frenemies. While she is staying at the Goergren to heal from her psychic attacks, Julia encounters Borka, a member of the “Hungarian skin-care royalty.” Borka seems to act as Julia’s friend, but Julia senses that her friendship comes at a cost. She sees that Borka is using her to gain information. When Borka gives her a gift, a key within a decorated metal box, Julia tries to refuse. Julia recognizes in this exchange that a seemingly small gift comes with strings attached. Although throughout the book, Julia frequently claims she regrets these unhealthy ties, she finds herself drawn to them anyways.

Characters in this novel also disappear and reappear in numerous guises. People change their faces to look like the dead and call it “surgical impersonation.” They make “vanishing videos” and pretend to commit suicide in order to escape from loved and not-so-loved ones. Even Julia’s own psychic experiences are confusing — people are not quite what they seem. The mother figure is always elusive. The object most associated with Julia’s mother is a heavy metal pendant; when Julia puts it on, it weighs her down. Similarly, Julia’s mother seems to have been someone who took more than she gave and with whom Julia must ultimately reckon, either to forgive her or to conquer her.

Julavits frequently writes about the complex relationship between mothers and daughters. In her last novel The Uses of Enchantment, the heroine returns home after a potential kidnapping, only to have her dying mother shun her. The Vanishers similarly focuses on physical decay and unreliability; the novel also explores whether fractured mother/daughter bonds — the “ideological penchant for matricide” — can be simply understood as the work of warped psychological determinism. One mother-character gives a psychological explanation, arguing “a mother’s greatest heartbreak is when she begins to see her child as the embodiment of her own worst self.” But, this mother is a particularly neglectful one, and it is difficult to take her statement as definitive. Julia herself questions whether her mother was a bad mother after all, using the lens of Sylvia Plath, who killed herself while her children were in the next room. Rather than see this as a selfish act, Julia sees an act of complicated love, “the sad ways that a mother’s love can be amplified or reduced to acts both monumentally considerate and monumentally selfish.” Perhaps, Julia wonders, her mother recognized her own toxicity.

Is it that women are more likely to be toxic to each other? There’s something about the links between the female characters that is both compelling and repellant, just as Julia’s psychic wanderings enable her to seek answers but not always the truth that she wants. An interaction with her father towards the end of the book echoes the idea that Julia may not want to know the truth about her mother: “He was relieved she was gone. Maybe not immediately, but very soon after she’d died, he’d realized — he’d been spared… By dying she’s released him from a life of vicarious, and then increasingly not, misery. She’d been toxic, a chore.” This seems to be a damning portrayal of Julia’s mother. Yet, Julia, as the narrator, is unwilling to condemn the women around her, even those who seem on the surface to be unforgiveable. As a character asks Julia, “What does a woman have to do… to be classified by you as a monster?” Perhaps this is because these women are always, even if unwillingly, both the sickness and the cure.

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— Jessica Pishko is a current MFA candidate in fiction at Columbia University. She also has a J.D. from Harvard Law School. You can follow her here.

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