Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits

The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits is a clever satire on pretentiousness of all kinds, but especially the absurdities in the field of paranormal psychology.

Julia Severn's mother committed suicide when Julia was a baby. Julia attends a psychic college where she possibly views a powerful figure there as a mother substitute. Madame Ackerman is a relentless investigator of past lives. A run-in with her does not end well for Julia.

Doped up to the eyeballs in order to deal with debilitating symptoms after she's been psychically attacked, Julia takes a job at a flooring company showroom in New York City.

"Despite its name the showroom showed very little save a clear Lucite desk, a jute rug -- a barbed and unkempt thing, woven of coconut shell fibers and resembling, because of its swirled weave, the hair that collects over a shower drain -- a red dial telephone, and me; as pedestrians walked by the plate glass that faced Park Avenue, I'd been instructed to hold the phone against my ear and move my lips. Because wires would have been visible behind the clear desk, the phone wasn't connected; nonetheless, when a person entered the showroom I was to speak in prescripted Arabic to a pretend customer calling from a state within the United Arab Emirates."

It is there that she meets Alwyn, another young woman who has issues with her mother. The two of them end up at a psychic treatment centre in Vienna.

Alwyn explains to Julia the "gist of a paper published by the Journal of Mental Science" that established a telepathic link between mothers and babies and proved that babies in orphanages [...] were twice as likely, by the age of three to exhibit psychic predilections.

'What I don't get is why I didn't develop any psychic abilities,' [Alwyn] said. 'My mother might as well have been dead for all I saw of her when I was little. Part of me suspects she must have read that article; she's so competitive, she probably spent just enough time with me to make sure I wouldn't develop powers that she hadn't developed herself.'

'I suppose that's possible,' I said. It sounded totally insane.

'My stepfather told me she tried to abort me.'


'She denied it when I confronted her. I'd deny it if I were her. It's curious, though, right? I mean obviously I'm curious. Why did she want to abort me? Maybe she did have some kind of ... power. Maybe she knew I'd grow up to disappoint her more than she disappointed herself.'

'I thought she was an internationally famous shampoo model,' I said.

'You say that so dismissively. She had iconic hair.'"

Meanwhile, Julia is having trouble following the rules at the treatment centre. Her therapist, Marta, warns Julia against unconscious psychic warfare.

"I promised Marta to engage in no unconscious warfare. I was innocent, at the time, of the lengths to which my unconscious would go to mock my inability to know my own warfare intentions."

The twisty plot revolves around a controversial filmmaker, Dominique Varga.

Alwyn's undergraduate dissertation "promised to show how Varga's portrayal of female exploitation and passivity (deemed 'masochistic' and 'viciously retrograde pornography' and 'satire without the satire' by her critics) could be construed as an antifeminist message that was, in fact, urgently feminist."

The Vanishers is quirky to the max and highly entertaining.

Readalikes: The Blondes (Emily Schultz); Where'd You Go, Bernadette (Maria Semple); and Doing Dangerously Well (Carole Enahoro).

No comments: