Featured Guest Review: Karen Russell on The Vanishers
Julia Severn, an initiate at the Institute of Integrated Parapsychology and stenographer to the great seer, Madame Ackermann (a recipient of "the occult equivalent of a MacArthur"), has a lot of raw talent. So much, in fact, that the relationship between mentor and protégé quickly sinks into hostile territory when Madame Ackermann taunts Julia with specters of her late mother. After a game of mental telepathy goes awry (forget Twister," these party games the academic psychics play, they are high stakes), Julia finds herself abstractly ill, undiagnosable and unable to continue her studies with Madame Ackermann.
Julia heads to New York, where she meets Alwyn, a young woman who has "vanished" herself, leaving her family without a clue as to her whereabouts; and Colophon Martin, a one-time employer and current adversary of Madame Ackermann. They theorize that all of Julia's strange symptoms can be traced back to her former mentor: Julia is suffering from a psychic attack launched by the jealous Madame. Colophon urges Julia to check herself into Vienna's Goergen Asylum, a cavernous Art Nouveau spa for patients wishing to recover in secret from plastic surgeries, and for the vanished victims of psychic attack.
On the surface, The Vanishers is about two paranormal scholars with the ability to carry out perplexing psychic attacks on their adversaries, and it is without a doubt a chilling metaphysical mystery. But it's also a totally delightful satire of academia, where email attachments can carry luminous pathogens and psychic warfare might at any moment erupt near an Institute cheese plate; it's a medical horror story that will be intimately familiar to anyone who has ever been sick with something that resists names and medicines; and it's a darkly hilarious send-up of spa culture and the various forms of amnesia, facial disguises, and self-erasure bottled and sold to us by the "health and beauty" industry.
The Vanishers delivers pretty much every pleasure a reader could ask for, and its unusual framework weaves together the powerful themes that dominate Julavits's other novels--it gives fresh expression to the experience of grief, of mourning for one's mother and for one's vanished self, of the fraught bonds between women and the twisted consequences of female rivalry and the games that people play with one another. I was amazed by the language in The Vanishers, at Julavits's gift for distilling complex desires, dream and emotion, and certain interior experiences that I had believed to be beyond articulation, into prose of shocking beauty and originality.
The Vanishers is an absolute masterpiece. Julavits takes readers on a wild ride that hops continents and decades, but the real setting is the grey territory between sickness and health, sanity and delusion, love and hatred, life and death.One thing is certain, you will never think of "mental health" in the same way again.
Winner of the PEN New England Award for Literary Excellence in Fiction
“An absorbing meditation on female competition with Hitchcockian twists....Gripping”
"Darkly comic....sharp-eyed, sardonic, hilarious....Julavits is at her acrobatically linguistic best here. Nearly every page contains a showstopping description or insight...narrative voice is superb. Funny, self-deprecating, exquisitely attuned....Vivid....Remarkable....Heartbreaking."
--New York Times Book Review
"Open The Vanishers to any page and you'll find some of the snappiest dialogue going. Stylish and fiercely funny, Heidi Julavits's fourth novel explores the imagined dangers and dizzying thrills of being a career psychic....Julavits is a fearlessly inventive writer, a risk-taker who never shies away from prickly, tangled, often meaphorical emotional darkness and constantly strikes out into unexplored territory....the sharply original narrative, which moves at top speed, [is] always entertaining and full of curiosities, deadpan banter, and metaphysical playfulness.....a wild, fun ride that doesn't let up until the last sentence."
"Heidi Julavits has a questing, eclectic intellect....wry wit and linguistic exuberance. She creates a sophisticated symmetry in the final surprising moments of Julia’s story, and, as if in an encore, adds an adroit comic flip at the end."
“The protagonist could join the ranks of literature’s most unreliable narrators alongside Humbert Humbert…”
--Wall Street Journal
--New York Times, Editor's Choice
"Part coming-of-age story, part murder mystery, part absurdist romp, part neurological novel. I loved it.....Julavtis' characters are as earnestly bizarre as Haruki Murakami's, and she's as funny as Lorrie Moore.....wonderful and interesting complications....Julavits is so smart and funny, and her writing is so good."
--San Francisco Chronicle
"Ms. Julavits is a keen observer of the high drama...An evocative writer, she conjures up the supernatural in a way that feels plausible....Lavish....Haunting"
"Thrilling, subversive insights...powerful in many ways....On the subject of loss in particular, Julavits is an expert, writing with eloquence and poetry.....sturdy intellectualism.....achieves a deepening of the novel's wisdom and insight....delivers a thunderclap of real feeling"
"A blistering read. Female aggression may lurk everywhere, but Julavits decides to unleash her antagonists in a quirky realm, the fictional Institute of Integrated Parapsychology, a New Hampshire school for students of the occult....funny, satiric and savage....the visceral kick of Julavits' prose....will provide a similar jolt of transgressive, feminine thrill."
--Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Julavits is no ordinary writer, and the meta-heavy brilliance of her fourth novel is something akin to a Sylvia Plath poem transferred telepathically to a psychic who happens to be solving a missing-person's case while being film-followed by artist Sophie Calle."
"Fantastic, deep and complicated...explores the way loss, disappointment, anger, deception and trauma can bleed down from generation to generation....a complicated, often troubling meditation on the complexities of relationships..."
"Bristling with wicked humor and sharp-edged irony, The Vanishers explores the ways in which the dead can haunt the living and the often painful persistence of memory"
"Clever....funny, affecting....an ambitious world that reveals the depths of matriarchal power structure....At the same time, Julavits does some clever twisting to the classic revenge plot....satisfying in all its attempts as a robust mystery, satire of academia, and finicky family drama."
"Intelligent and ambitious"-
"Wry, witty....magical, and Julavits's often acerbic prose generates laughs despite the sad reality"
Praise for THE VANISHERS:
“The Vanishers is a fascinating inquiry into matriarchal structures: their power struggles, the projections, distortions and anxieties that result, and, above all, the creative - and destructive - energies that they unleash. A real achievement."
—Tom McCarthy, author of Remainder and C
“It is always an adventure and a delight to read Heidi Julavits. Her intellectual brio and descriptive inventiveness are on full display in The Vanishers, but she’s gone further this time by inventing a new genre: the astral detective thriller.”
—Jennifer Egan, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad
“The Vanishers is one of the best novels I’ve ever read, delivering all the immediate pleasures of mystery, horror, and satire while exploring grief in language that is as shocking for its originality as its precision. Julavits takes readers on a wild ride that hops continents and decades, but the real setting of The Vanishers is the gray territory between sickness and health, sanity and delusion, love and hatred, life and death.”
—Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia and St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
Praise for THE USES OF ENCHANTMENT:
"A technical marvel . . . that moves with the speed and inevitability of a freight train . . . Entertaining, devastating, and as slippery as a strand of its anti-heroine's lank hair." —Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Julavits expertly keeps the reader baffled until the end, but beneath the mystery is a sophisticated meditation on truth and bias." —The New Yorker
"Suspenseful, energetic, and literarily playful." —San Francisco Chronicle