Feb/Mar 2012

Absence Makes the Art

In Heidi Julavits's latest, a gifted psychic goes in search of missing moms

Jessica Winter


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Francesca Woodman, Untitled, New York, 1979–80. From the exhibition "Francesca Woodman," on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art until February 20.

If you are so unfortunate as to be the protagonist of a Heidi Julavits novel, chances are you are both lonely and besieged. You are the girl at the party that everyone stares at but no one will talk to. You are likely clever, plain, and passive, a screen on which other women project their resentments and insecurities. You are the taunted sister, the gossiped-about neighbor or colleague, and you are almost certainly the unmothered daughter. Perhaps your mother could not bear her child’s scent, and expressed her parental ambivalence by campaigning against overpopulation (as in Julavits’s 2003 novel, The Effect of Living Backwards). Perhaps your mother refused her daughter’s presence at her deathbed, leaving you to long for posthumous absolution (The Uses of Enchantment, 2006). Or perhaps, in the ultimate act of maternal withholding, she committed suicide one month after giving birth to her only child, as Julia Severn’s mother does in Julavits’s new novel, The Vanishers. Whatever the specifics, the one person in the galaxy who might be counted upon to give you unconditional love doesn’t, and other people—other unmothered women especially—can smell it on you: your shame, your freakish void, your lack. Your mother is your preexisting condition.

A central irony of The Vanishers is that Julia, born to a missing person, has psychic powers that allow her to fill in blanks, communicate with the dead, hack into other people’s gray matter—but with one exception. “Despite my supposed gifts, I had never visited my own mother,” Julia explains. “She had never allowed it.” So Julia does what many a smart but aimless young person chooses at a moment of impasse: She enrolls in a hyperspecialized degree program. As The Vanishers begins, Julia is in her second year at the Institute of Integrated Parapsychology, a snake pit of an academic cult in New Hampshire known as the Workshop. “And if,” Julia says, “I had gone to the Workshop to sharpen my finding abilities so that I could track this most reluctant woman down—so what?” This journey eventually brings Julia across Europe and into contact with a quasi-family of damaged daughters and mother substitutes. But it’s never entirely clear who or what she’s searching for—is “mother” a person, a corporeal presence with an inner life of her own? Is she a memory? Is she a story, a work of her daughter’s imagination? Julavits’s novel gorgeously blurs the lines between these three entities, which even the sharpest paranormal mind might not be able to discern from one another.

The queen of the psychics in The Vanishers is one Madame Ackermann, who just so happens to bear an uncanny resemblance to Julia’s mother and is a willing object of intellectual-erotic fascination at the Workshop. “The suppleness of her gray matter—I’m ashamed to admit that I’d imagined how it would feel to the touch—was reflected in the pearly suppleness of her eyes, her hair, her skin,” says Julia. She becomes Ackermann’s amanuensis and, for a moment, her protégée. But then Ackermann, envious of Julia’s potential, launches a “psychic attack” on her would-be heir in the form of a spectral wolf. The episode is a nightmare made real that leaves Julia a fluish wreck, her brain dried out by insomnia, her “finding abilities” in a temporary coma.

It’s clear by this point in The Vanishers that Julia has exceedingly poor taste in mothers. But Julavits plunges deeper yet into her core conceit of daughters searching for figurative and literal mothers, to absurdist and poignant effect. Surely impressed that Julia’s skills could inspire such an explosion of professional jealousy, one of Ackermann’s would-be clients asks Julia to track down the other absent matriarch at the center of the novel. She is the cult figure Dominique Varga, a possibly dead French feminist avant-garde pornographer-prankster–performance artist. Varga is the originator of what are known as vanishing films: audiovisual suicide notes for people who contemplate killing themselves but decide to disappear instead. Often called “the Leni Riefenstahl of France,” Varga may have known Julia’s mother before her death; the connection leaves Julia pacing warily around the wonderful, horrible chance that she may still be alive, albeit dead to her family. “These films are essentially suicide notes,” Julia says to Alwyn, a failed Workshop initiate and Varga acolyte. “Interesting,” Alwyn replies. “So you’re saying you see no difference between your mother being dead and your mother being alive and living somewhere else?”

Alwyn’s snarky question is one of subjectivity, which is perhaps Julavits’s great theme. In her books, the stories we tell—about ourselves, about the people we love and hate—can surpass or obviate the notion of objective truth. The question “What really happened?” is always central, and there are always several different correct answers. In The Effect of Living Backwards, the main plotline is an airplane hijacking that may or may not be an elaborate hoax. The Uses of Enchantment circles ambiguously yet exhaustively around the disappearance of a teenage girl: Was she abducted, or did she simply wander off? While Enchantment moves back and forth in time, The Vanishers occasionally dissolves time altogether, with deliciously disorienting results: There are no big signposts separating the everyday waking world from, say, Julia’s extrasensory visitations of Irenke, a key Varga associate and possible Varga offspring. Julavits’s choose-your-own-adventure style of storytelling is to present two opposing possibilities and to privilege them both. It’s all happening, even when it’s not. The wolf imprinting itself on Julia’s eyelids when she tries to sleep may not be “real,” yet there he is.

Over and over in The Vanishers, Julia is told that she is culpable for, well, everything, even that wolf. “I brought this on myself,” Julia says early on; “consider how you’ve brought this on yourself,” she’s urged in the final pages of the book. Fixations on shame and blame are a constant in Julavits’s novels (the protagonist of The Effect of Living Backwards collects what she calls “Shame Stories” from her fellow hijacked passengers), and so is the female-to-female transmission of psychic diseases with symptoms including unprovoked passive aggression and grand-mal sniping. The dichotomy established in Living Backwards—self-dramatizing “sluts” (Julavits does like this word) versus bookish doormats—remains intact in The Vanishers, and if by this point in Julavits’s career her harsh, rocky topography of womanhood has grown monotonous, it nevertheless proves fertile ground for exploring any number of contemporary ailments. Online schadenfreude is one—at a low point, Julia becomes “the secret curator of the suffering of others,” trolling the Internet for roommates who’ve grown round or coworkers who’ve gone broke. Another is the emotional cost of living in public, as most of us do now. Varga’s disappearing project is outlandish, destructive, sadomasochistic—and it’s also faintly attractive, if only because disappearing in 2012 is nearly impossible to do.

So what really happened to Julia’s mother? To survive a loved one’s suicide is to be haunted by the question of how life would be different had she lived; Julavits, as is her wont, makes that “what if” even more demonic by dangling the notion that Julia’s mother never killed herself. Because Julavits’s storytelling style is innately hypothetical, it’s ideal for capturing the almost irresistible urge to hypothesize about the dead and their psychic whereabouts. Yet the most poignant figure in The Vanishers is Julia’s reticent-to-a-fault father; unlike most Julavits characters, he resists making up stories to fill a void. If, for example, the young Julia asked him if her mother would have built sand castles with her on the beach, he’d refuse to answer, and refuse to explain his refusal, leaving it to Julia to make it up, as she does:

My response would not be a truthful attempt to answer your question, it would be an attempt to compensate for your loss by creating an ideal person whose absence you can mourn unreservedly. However, this puts me in the position of making her into someone she was possibly not; it forces me to falsely represent her to you, and in doing so I become, not the keeper of her memory, but the re-creator of her past. . . .You will grow up missing a mother that you would never have experienced, had she not died. And this strikes me as a second kind of death, a more complete and horrible death, to be annihilated and replaced by a hypothetical person who is not remotely you, thus I think it is better that she remain a quasi-mystery, a pleasant unknown, than an absence filled with compensatory narratives supplied by your guilty father.

If you can keep a woman alive by telling her story, it follows that you can also kill her with it. One of Julavits’s stranger achievements is cataloguing the ways people can die: They can swallow a bottle of pills, they can make a vanishing film, they can be forgotten, they can be obliterated in the memory by nicer, more interesting stunt doubles. By novel’s end, Julia has discovered she need not romanticize or retrofit the dead; nor must she either forgive or forsake them. She turns away from a reckoning with at least two of her failed maternal figures, and finds a kind of ecstasy in that anti-catharsis. Just as death is part of life, The Vanishers concludes, spite, betrayal, and unanswered sorrow are as inevitable as their opposites—and so we can only gather them tightly around us, like beloved, bewildering children.

Jessica Winter is a senior editor at Time.

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