The omnipresent dead are in the marrow of The Vanishers, the new novel by Heidi Julavits. Its heroine, Julia, is a rising star at an elite psychic institute called The Workshop. The environment is cutthroat; students vie to distinguish themselves and compete for the attention of Madame Ackerman, the grande dame of the school and the psychic genius behind exercises like petrifying meat with the mind. Students who end up, after the exercise, with only a smog of rot in their dorm rooms are referred to as “Mortgage Payments,” while students like Julia are, if lucky, offered the chance to work as Madame Ackerman’s stenographer, scribbling notes about her “regressions”: psychic voyages to other places and time periods.
But Julia soon finds that Madame Ackerman isn’t regressing at all, just napping. Julia tries to help cover for her mentor by inventing details, but unwittingly gives away her nascent talents. Envious, Madame Ackerman retaliates by psychically attacking her at a faculty party, leaving Julia debilitated and unable to remain at school. She goes to New York, where a seemingly chance encounter with an alumna from The Workshop introduces her to the work of Dominique Varga, an enigmatic pornographic filmmaker. Julia agrees to pursue information about Varga, prompted in part by Madame Ackerman’s new interest in the artist. She also learns that Varga knew her mother, who committed suicide when Julia was a baby, and whose life and death remain murky. To investigate, Julia disappears into a psychic clinic, where she becomes one of the “vanishers”: people who have abandoned their pasts in a bid for self-erasure.
Julavits imagines the landscape of the psychic discipline with wit and a sinister sense of humor. Feel-good experts lecture about the obvious merit of severing emotional attachments and eliminating unhealthy ones, while others write theses about modernist writers and the goal of “clairvoidancy.” Julia’s father, a geologist, regards her soft science with all the wariness of a neuroscientist reviewing a psychology textbook. The tension between the mental power of The Workshop and the laboratory’s tendency to view it as imagined parallel Julia’s battle with her own body; the experts that prescribe her drugs for psychosomatic symptoms are put to shame when she abandons her regimen, returns to psychic activity, and feels refreshed, shedding her emotional arthritis and recording lucid notes about her body. Her relapses as she continues to work — and as she struggles to free herself from the influence of Madame Ackerman, Varga, and her mother — suggest new questions. Who is making Julia sick? Is it her mentor, herself, or something else?
In a recent Saturday Night Live skit, psychics at an award ceremony look on with dismay while the emcees reflect on all the attendants who will die in the coming year. The camera cuts to distraught mystics in the audience, who are, ironically, startled by the bad news. Parts of The Vanishers recall this conundrum: is it really possible that a gifted psychic wouldn’t pick up on some of this stuff? Julia plows ahead with her investigation, propelled by the desire to know more about her mother, and with none of the caution plain old common sense would provide. This discordance is interesting, even expected on one level — smart young women make mistakes like anyone else. Rather than clarifying this tension, Julavits rushes over moments of decision making and concludes sections with an excess of foreshadowing. “I was innocent, at the time, of the lengths to which my unconscious would go to mock my inability to know my own warfare intentions,” Julia tells us. “I cannot blame myself for making what would reveal itself to be a very poor decision.” Noted.
If Julavits is in a hurry to build suspense or mark the limits of Julia’s awareness, it may be because there’s a lot of ground to cover. Julia skips around the continent and back and forth in time, sifting through trove after trove of coincidental information. Characters assume each others’ roles to form a miasma of past and present. They mimic and lash out at one another in equal turn. They crash their cars for art, push away their daughters, and plague their loved ones. The umbilical cords between relatives — and their surrogates — are ties, but also nooses.
Julavits is pursuing a lot of ideas about the relationship between the living and the dead and the way mothers reconcile old notions of themselves with their desirable, autonomous daughters. These ideas recur in the past, in the present, and in the characters’ minds, but given Julia’s long itinerary they come across as motifs and not convincing characterization. This is partly due to the subjectivity of Julia’s narration, but neither she nor Julavits seem to settle on what drives much of the action. Julia is bent on revenge and maternal reckoning. The motivations of the other women — well, they are rather abstract. Take this line, for instance, which comes when Julia meets her friend’s cold mother, who criticizes younger women:
Your generation is always so quick to blame other women for its problems . . . You girls and your ideological penchant for matricide. Kill the mother. Kill the mother. No wonder you’re all so lost.
Julia later concludes:
I’d decided — this kind of hating, this kind of fault-finding, this kind of symbolic matricide, it had to stop . . . to ensure that my mother’s death did not perpetuate more pointless, self-defeating rivalries among women who, in the end, were only killing themselves.
The didactic quality of the language and the parallels to discussions about feminism bring these statements out of the universe of the novel and into the here-and-now in a way that doesn’t sit right with me. I suspect that other readers might be startled by the suggestion that there is such universal combat over intellect and sex appeal between mentors and students, mothers and daughters. After pages of woman-on-woman combat, I began to feel the authorial finger pointed at me, accusing me of a fight that I didn’t pick.