Heidi Julavits’s The Vanishers is a novel that begins with an interesting premise. Imagine you’re unwell. You have some malady, or maladies, which you can’t resolve and can’t explain the origin of. Now imagine that your illness could have been caused by someone else. In other words, there is someone out there, maybe someone you’ve never even met, attacking you, draining away your life and energy. In the taut first-chapter of this novel, Julavits persuades the reader that this could be the case.
If, like me, you’ve been reading a lot of science fiction and SF-influenced fiction lately, you might expect the rest of the novel would explore the questions surrounding how this could be the case. Julavits, however, defies expectations and gives us a novel exploring the mind of a young woman, Julia Severn, who isn’t sure what’s real and what’s not, what’s past and what’s present, and as a result has trouble interacting normally with other people, especially other women.
The novel moves quickly, but gets bogged down a bit towards the end. I had difficulty keeping track of what had happened. Sticking so closely to the consciousness of a single character—and one who’s not very interested in other people—makes it possible for Julavits to show us how a certain kind of woman thinks and feels, but doesn’t allow much room for letting the other characters appear as who they really are. This is exacerbated by the fact that almost all the characters (with the exception of a few authority figures who keep the plot moving along) are either, like Julia, troubled daughters, or older women who are possible mother figures to them. At the end of the novel, too, Julia’s self-revelations come fast and furious, and to me, they weren’t entirely convincing.
The plot involves, in part, a missing film—like in Infinite Jest, or Rick Moody’s The Diviners—in part, a remote sanitarium (The Magic Mountain), and in part, a psychic-training institute that bears a strong resemblance to a creative-writing program (though surely what’s being taught is more similar to historical scholarship). It’s not unfair to compare The Vanishers to Kafka (the Kafka of The Metamorphosis, though, not to that of The Castle). There are a lot of interesting ideas here. It’s obviously unfair of me to complain that I’d wished some of those ideas had been developed very differently. What Julavits does emphasize, she does very wll.
A couple of things, in particular, however, bothered me. First, the book was supposedly written as an act of empathy for people who really are suffering from unusual diseases that their doctors can’t yet quite pin down. But it feels like the effect of the book is to offer a possible cause and remedy for some readers’ suffering, encouraging them to enter the mind of the narrator. Then it pushes very strongly the idea that it’s even more “in their head” than they might have initially feared, and not only that, but it’s a kind of punishment (in the form of natural consequences) for their being a bad person.
Second, the struggles among the women in the book have no real substance. They’re always fighting, but they aren’t fighting over anything at all. There are no external dangers, and there’s nothing at stake. There are no social or institutional constraints on their lives that make them hostile to one another. There are no objective differences between one woman and another that add interest to their conflict and allow the reader to care about how it turns out. Any apparent substance will turn out to be a ruse. There’s nothing to be learned except that women fight with each other. Portraying a world and a group of women for whom this is actually, unfortunately, true is obviously the author’s intent, but it does eliminate some ordinary sources of interest, in terms of plot and character, and I think it’s depressing.
The best thing about the book is its exploring the question of how much the past matters. Everyone tells Julia that her problems are caused by her mother’s having died soon after her birth, and she decides that not only does she have to find out about her mother, she has to find out about the would-be but false mother figure who is maliciously causing her illness. But in the end, it turns out that the past doesn’t matter much at all. What matters is the way she moves forward.