Heidi Julavits’s THE VANISHERS is a frustrating novel. Constructed by an accomplished writer upon a foundation of timeless themes --- the tensions between mothers and daughters, the pain of female rivalry and the tragic legacy of suicide --- it’s hard to envision things going awry. But Julavits instead chooses obscurity over clarity, and what could have been a meaningful exploration of these issues in the hands of a writer of her talents is sacrificed in favor of an overly clever, often head-scratching plot.
"THE VANISHERS is less a mystery than a hall of funhouse mirrors. If your literary taste runs to oblique storytelling, Julavits’s novel has its appeal."
The novel’s protagonist, Julia Severn, finds herself at the Institute of Integrated Parapsychology (sort of a post-graduate version of Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy in Lev Grossman’s THE MAGICIANS), where faculty investigate psychic phenomena and amuse themselves with party games like Spooky Action at a Distance, a “mental telepathy parlor game.” There, she functions as a stenographer and then archivist to Madame Ackermann (“me the worshipful initiate, she the skilled mentor”), a charismatic teacher, who writes books with titles like E-mails from the Dead. Julia’s mother committed suicide shortly after her daughter’s birth, and that cruel act shadows the young woman. “I’d searched for her in the bottoms of teacups and under the bed in which she’d died,” she confesses, “the only grave she’d been afforded because her body had been burned, her ashes scattered on a mountain that was always cold when we visited.”
Madame Ackermann’s powers are fading, and out of apparent jealousy, she launches a psychic attack (featuring a terrifying wolf-like creature, among other things) that eventually lands her former acolyte in Vienna in an unusual institution --- equal parts psychiatric clinic and plastic surgery recovery spa. Julia’s therapy includes an exercise called Mundane Egg that involves imagining herself thickening the eggshell that is her psyche. And despite her therapist’s admonition not to exercise her psychic powers, Julia senses she’s slowly recovering them.
While in Vienna, Julia becomes a “vanisher,” someone who cuts off all ties to her family instead of committing suicide, leaving behind only a video stored in a warehouse its billionaire creator calls a “hopeful grief museum.” As devastating as the legacy of her mother’s suicide may be, Julia recognizes that the vanishing process may be even more heartless: “To kill yourself was to say to your family members, I can no longer live with myself. To vanish was to say, I can no longer live with you.”
Much of the novel concerns the search for the missing filmmaker Dominique Varga, the “Leni Riefenstahl of France,” so named because of films she had directed for the fascist politician Jean-Marie Le Pen. Varga is also notorious for the handful of snuff films featuring car accidents she’s directed. There’s a character who may be Varga’s daughter (who claims she was abandoned at birth, in an act reminiscent of Julia’s mother’s suicide), and even Varga (who may once have purchased a piece of jewelry made by Julia’s mother) herself may (or may not) make an appearance. It’s often unclear whether events are taking place in real life or in one of Julia’s frequent regressions, trance states indistinguishable from what Madame Ackermann calls a “living death.” Too often we’re made to feel like Julia does when she observes, “Suddenly we were having a coded conversation and I was meant to provide my own key.”
In the world Julavits has created, nothing is even remotely what it seems. Julia’s statement in the novel’s opening sentence gives a good hint of what’s to come: “The story I’m about to tell you could be judged preposterous,” she concedes. Your tolerance for the shape-shifting quality of the novel’s plot and especially for its enigmatic characters, real and imagined, will be determined by your willingness to have certainty snatched from your grasp just as it appears within reach. THE VANISHERS is less a mystery than a hall of funhouse mirrors. If your literary taste runs to oblique storytelling, Julavits’s novel has its appeal. If not, you are in for a vertiginous and, in the end, disappointing ride.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on March 22, 2012