Searching for Psychic Connections in Heidi Julavits' 'The Vanishers'

Heidi 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.

The Vanishers

Publisher: Doubleday
Length: 304 pages
Price: $26.95
Author: Heidi Julavits
Publication date: 2012-03

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.


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Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

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Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

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(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

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The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

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When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

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(Available from Warner Bros.)

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(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

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