The Vanishers: A Novel by Heidi Julavits (New York: Doubleday, 2012. 304 pp)

Born and raised in Portland, Maine, Heidi Julavits attended Dartmouth College and earned an M.F.A from Columbia University. Julavits co-edits The Believer magazine. She has authored four novels: The Mineral Palace, The Effect of Living Backwards, The Uses of Enchantment, and The Vanishers. Julavits lives in Manhattan with her husband, writer Ben Marcus, and their children.

Hell is Other People

Jean-Paul Sartre famously said, “Hell is other people.” To him, a relationship with others creates, sustains, and empowers dissidence. To a certain extent, then, isolation emerges as a virtue. But do we actually enjoy existence in the prison of our thoughts? With The Vanishers, Heidi Julavits suggests hell also proceeds from the individual.

The Life of a Psychic 

The Vanishers’ plot centers around a burgeoning psychic, Julia Severn. Enrolled in an elite institute for psychics, Julia interns for Madame Ackermann, a renowned psychic.

Julia’s mother committed suicide soon after birthing Julia. Without a mother, Julia began connecting with people, places, and things on a different plain. Thus, she learned of her psychic talents early in life.

“I did not take their concerned skepticism personally. Concerned skepticism, after all, had been my father’s default mode toward me since the age of three, when I was diagnosed by a pediatric neurologist with electromagnetic hyperactivity, which explained why our household appliances—toasters, radios, computers—were perpetually blowing fuses or known to spontaneously, in my presence, fail. By the time I was eight I could darken streetlamps by walking beneath them, I could set off car and house alarms and inspire automatic garage doors to a state of rapid fibrillation. By the time I was twelve I realized that I could, on the random occasion, mindfully direct these electrons (if that’s what they were) into spaces where my body had never been. I knew when I saw a woman crying on the street that she’d had her purse stolen on the train. I knew by the backs of a bank teller’s hands that his wife had recently suffered a miscarriage” (56).

Despite these unique skills, Julia is unable to connect with her mother. This lost parent remains a void in Julia.

The Art of Psychic Attack

Photo by Stefano Corso

Utilizing psychic skills in her internship with Ackermann, Julia quickly overshadows her mentor’s work. In a fit of jealousy, Ackermann demotes Julia before launching a psychic attack on the intern, unbeknownst to Julia. This attack forces Julia to become ill and therefore take a leave of absence from the institute.

While away from school, a professor and protégé approach Julia about using her psychic gifts to track down an iconoclastic artist named Dominique Varga. Long thought dead, Julia’s employers believe Varga has assumed another identity through surgical impersonation.

“There’d been a sharp rise in reports of surgical impersonator sightings (i.e., people refashioning their faces to look like people who had died) in and around New York City, prompting a Manhattan criminologist to speculate that these impersonators were part of a terrorist group engaging in civilian psychological warfare” (125).

Meanwhile, Ackermann, Julia’s psychic attacker and former mentor, begins pursuit of Varga, the artist. As a result, Julia must simultaneously psychically fight Ackermann while pursuing leads on locating Varga.

As all of these ideas unfold, Julia hopes to draw near to her dead mother longing for the opportunity to meet her psychically.

Mother Daughter

This void between mother and daughter represents the crucial theme in The Vanishers. While the plot absurdly meanders through strange settings and impressionistic characters, Julia ultimately seeks conclusion around her mother’s death.

“Couldn’t she have waited until I reached her bed to fucking die? Was that too much to ask? I was sorry that she’d been so miserable. But I did not accept this as an excuse. She’d had a duty to be interested in me; that alone should have kept her alive, at least until my first Christmas, or until my first day of school, or until my first heartbreak, or until my first bad haircut, or until the first time I had a stomach bug and needed someone to hold my head out of the toilet” (271).

In the end, Julia conjures her astral powers in search of her mother trying to discover why her mother selfishly chose to die instead of raising her?

Hell Is Life

Photo by Francis Mariani

While strange and atypical, The Vanishers ponders the notion of what it truly means to live. A psychic transcends the prison of the mind, traveling to dialogue with different people in alternate timelines. Through her psychic activity, Julia learns more about herself in the process.

“Because this is what being alive means, this is what being a person means, to be sickened by an illness known as you” (279).

Contrary to Jean-Paul Sartre, hell can be anything. Through a psychedelic plot about psychics, Heidi Julavits ponders the meaning of love and loss between a mother and daughter. In the end, the reader realizes hell is life.

A schizophrenic and difficult read, The Vanishers is not for everyone. If, however, you like absurd plotlines and characters, The Vanishers might be up your alley.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

What about you? Does The Vanishers interest you? How about psychics? What does hell mean to you?
Share your thoughts below.

Posted by: Donovan Richards
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