The Vanishers is four-time novelist and Believer founding editor Heidi Julavits’s new work, and it has a really, really bright cover. It’s a good book, for the most part, and an interesting book, and I promise I’ll talk about it in an interesting way for the rest of this post, but first I have to talk about the cover. Remember folks, never judge a book by its cover! Except I feel like this one, with its masses of blinding and hyperdetailed flowers crowding the dust jacket and threatening to take over the text of the title itself, captures pretty well what’s going on between those pieces of cardboard, which is: a LOT.
The novel tells the story of Julia Severn, a young and talented psychic studying at a New England parapsychology institute called the Workshop. She works as a stenographer for one of the Workshop’s most powerful and renowned psychics, a little black-haired woman named Madame Ackermann who the narrator repeatedly reminds us looks a lot like Julia’s dead mother (and who, based on Julavits’s beautifully executed descriptions, I imagined to look a lot like Björk). Madame Ackermann has been hired by a non-psychic academic to divine the location of some film reels he’s interested in. But Madame is suffering from psychic block, and instead of going into a trance from which she can reveal the film’s location to her stenographer, she keeps falling asleep on the sofa while Julia just sits there.
Julia, prematurely weary and likably misguided narrator that she is, decides to make things up while Madame is sleeping. When she wakes up, Julia reports on the made-up dreams, and Madame Ackermann is temporarily satisfied. But she still hasn’t found the location of the film reels, until one day a vision comes to Julia while Madame is asleep. Julia delivers the information as though Madame had come up with it herself, but it is eventually revealed that Julia has been lying, and this is where the novel’s real action starts. Madame Ackermann launches a psychic attack on Julia, making her seriously and mysteriously ill for months. Eventually Julia finds out that she’s being attacked, and thus begins a complex mystery and somewhat wacky romp involving an academic named Colophon Martin, an assistant whose appearance alternates wildly between prim and disheveled depending on how her day is going, a Hungarian heiress with a ruined face, a feminist filmmaker named Dominique Varga (there’s a brilliant bit of naming—she sounded so familiar until I realized that Julavits had made her up), and so on.
All of these over-the-top details are kind of fun, but they might have been my least favorite part of the novel. Beneath them is a story about jealousy, revenge, loss and bewilderment, but I found that part a bit hard to piece together. There’s a lot of hype around this novel, and some of the reviews I’ve read characterize what happens between Julia and Madame Ackermann as a uniquely female expression of rivalry. It’s true that Julia struggles with understanding the death of her mother, who killed herself when Julia was an infant, and that Madame Ackermann exploits Julia’s emotions around that relationship. But I wasn’t sure that there was anything inherently feminine in Julia’s sense of loss or Madame’s anger, or that, as the book’s jacket claims, this was a story about “female rivalry.” I don’t want to understate the fact that The Vanishers has a cast made up almost entirely of fully realized women characters, because I loved that part of it, but I do wonder whether, if this story centered around men, everyone would be crowing that it was a tale of masculine rivalries and men’s relationships.
As a last note, I should say that there are places in the novel where the logistics of the characters’ psychic powers become murky and I long to know more. If Madame Ackermann is such a powerful psychic, then why doesn’t she know that Julia is lying? I guess she’s suffering from a block, but then how is she able to play, early on in the novel, a psychic parlor game that involves flinging complex mental images into a crowd of guests?
But this lack of explication is part of what keeps Julavits’s novel charming and quirky, instead of devolving into a speculative mire. At times it’s textbook magical realism: the psychic phenomena, though dramatic, are totally plausible even to non-psychic characters. (And they happen in a world which also includes Google and Wikipedia—which brings up the clever question of what it would even mean to be psychic in a world where information is so public already.)
It’s pretty silly, when you think about it, to write a book with the structure of a mystery, where every two pages something comes as a SURPRISING REVELATION, and to make your main character psychic. How is that supposed to work? But it does work sometimes, though not always, and it’s brave and ironic and hilarious, and that’s why, despite its flaws and frustrations, The Vanishers is worth the trouble.