Our minds have the capacity to both heal and to hurt our bodies. The placebo effect provides well documented medical evidence of the brain’s mysterious restorative power over a variety of bodily maladies. And in somatoform disorders, the physical symptoms of illness originate from a person’s mental state rather than from any diagnosable medical condition. Doctors and psychologists agree that symptoms experienced in somatoform disorders are no less real than those of any other physical ailment.
It seems that we humans are hardwired with a dubious propensity for making ourselves sick. Would it be such a stretch then, to believe that we also have the power to make each other sick?
In Heidi Julavits’ The Vanishers, sickness is a weapon that is wielded by the ones we hold the closest. Julavits, who is the author of three previous novels and co-founding editor of The Believer magazine, explores such heavily weighted themes as illness, suicide and the unbridgeable distances between mothers and daughters, here within the unlikely framework of a paranormal mystery novel. Her protagonist, Julia Severn, is a gifted young psychic studying at the Institute of Integrated Parapsychology under the esteemed tutelage of her mentor, Madame Ackermann.
Ackermann is a master of the occult arts who bears a striking resemblance to Severn’s long deceased mother, and when her own powers inexplicably begin to wane just as Severn’s burst into prodigious fruition, she begins to perceive her student as a threat that must be eradicated. When Severn comes down with a mysterious and debilitating illness, later discovered to be the result of a psychic attack, she is forced to leave the Institute for a sequestered existence among the seething solitude of Manhattan.
Severn’s unique psychic abilities do not go unnoticed at the Institute, however, and soon she is swept up in an astral detective saga, chosen by enigmatic Institute dropout Alwyn, and Colophon Martin, a former client of Ackermann’s, to engage in a psychic exploration of the life and unexplained disappearance of French feminist pornographer, performance artist and provocateur Dominique Varga. The figures of Varga, Ackermann and Severn’s own mother who committed suicide when she was an infant, shift and merge in nebulous patterns of displacement, desire and disguise that reveal the complex ambiguities of relationships between women.
The titular vanishers are both victims and perpetrators; they are suicides, escape artists, and plastic surgery patients who engage in prosthetic resurrections by wearing the faces of the dead. And Severn must sift through these layers of possibility and meaning to uncover the truth of each character’s past and present motivation, and perhaps most illusively, her own.
Julavits’ exploration of the dense vicissitudes that characterize the relationships between her characters is in no way diminished by her inventive repurposing of genre conventions within a literary context. The trope of psychic regression provides a potent examination of the complex interplay between memory, loss and desire that define and limit their possibilities of communication and self knowledge. And the pervasive specter of the psychic attack, in which ill feelings act as toxins, infecting one’s friends, family and lovers with incurable ailments, serves as an apt metaphor for the human capacity to harm the ones we love.
The Vanishers manages to be both a tightly plotted thriller full of twists and turns and page turning suspense and a serious inquiry into the ambivalent depths of the closest of human relationships. Beyond the story’s highly engaging surface level, the narrative’s true focus is upon the interplay between absence and longing when those relationships cease to exist, or in the case of Severn and her mother, never have the opportunity to exist in the first place.
Julavits pulls off this delicate balancing act between the literary and escapist aspirations of her text through a prose style that is simultaneously illuminating, acerbic and unquestionably her own. The book is rich with vivid descriptive passages and sharp, witty dialogue that combines insight with a biting satirical edge. In the following passage, Severn describes her parents to her friend Borka, an elderly plastic surgery patient who Severn meets while recovering from her psychic attack at a resort in Vienna:
My father, I told her, was born to murky people — the only child of parents whom I remembered best for serving me sandwiches filled with a paste of ground bologna, mayonnaise, and pickles, a combination that suggested either high American Waspiness or one of its many immigrant opposites,
‘And your father? What does he do?’
‘He’s a geologist obsessed with sinkholes,’ I said.
‘Here we call them drains,’ she said, unimpressed.
‘No … well …’ I said.
I explained to her about sinkholes.
‘They may be formed gradually or suddenly,’ I said. ‘But the sudden ones swallow cars, buildings, sometimes people. My father studies sinkholes caused by human activity, namely, industrially produced waste.’
Her stare grew keener.
‘And your mother?’ she said.
‘My mother is dead,’ I said.
I expected her expression to stall in that gear of generic pity that I’d come to so detest, and tried to never inspire.
But it didn’t.
‘No wonder your father is obsessed with holes caused by people,’ she said.
In this passage, Julavits constructs a poignant metaphor for the experience of loss, while eschewing sentiment for a keen sense of irony and concision. And these qualities of language abound throughout her text, making it a pleasure to read despite the often difficult subject matter.
Julavits has a rare gift for combining fantasy and realism in a powerfully evocative manner that recalls the work of such masters of this hybrid form as Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison. However, her work is firmly anchored in the contemporary literary and cultural moment, and even as her characters regress psychically across varied terrains of time and space, there is something that is quintessentially of the here and now about this novel.
Perhaps its greatest strength is in Julavits’ use of psychic phenomena as a means to explore the channels of communication between and within human minds, and how even as the obstacles of physical bodies and the will to deceive are stripped away, vast chasms remain between truth and perception. In the end, the biggest mystery of all for Severn turns out to be herself, and for all of her tremendous psychic capacity, she can’t seem to discover the answers that are right in front of her all along.