Busted Membranes and Neon Flowers

Everyone’s talking about the cover of Heidi Julavits’s new novel, The Vanishers. When my friend Jill bought it, the bookstore cashier went on about how the cover would be better off as a skirt. When I read The Vanishers at the coffee shop, the baristas looked at me funny because I was a guy reading a book with neon flowers all over it. And in a review, Buzzy Jackson wrote that the cover made the book seem lively and light, when really, the story told in The Vanishers is a black one.

The cashier thinks the book should be a skirt; the barista thinks the cover is so absurdly feminine that a guy couldn’t possibly be reading it; and Buzzy Jackson says the cover’s misleading. But the question is: How’d the cover wind up like this?

If you think about it, the cover makes sense. Julavits, since her first novel, The Mineral Palace (2000), has written about women who go beyond themselves to become something more than what they were, or what they were expected to be. Her characters’ femininity is a radiant one, a cracked-open one that breaks down the barriers that surround notions of self, and The Vanishers is no exception. The book follows Julia Severn, a woman who uses her psychic powers to investigate the dark historical crevices surrounding her mother’s suicide; Julia exceeds herself by using thoughts outside the constraints of the skull. So, the cover makes sense because it illustrates an exploded, delirious, unleashed femininity, with some neon thrown in there to hint that these flowers, rather than bring us the friendly-familiar comforts of nature, are going to light the way to somewhere abnormal, monstrous, and criminal.

The problem, though, is that even once you know what the cover is supposed to illustrate, it still feels funny; it makes sense, but still gives off the wrong vibes. And I think the reason the cover wound up this way is that its designers were unsure of what to do, because The Vanishers as a whole has an uneasy, confused feeling that’s hard to make sense of. And it reads that way because of the conflicted point Julavits has arrived at with her focus on women who exceed their constraints to become something more.

In The Mineral Palace, a young, Depression-era mother kills her epileptic infant son. I read this as a Crime and Punishment moment for mothers. While Raskolnikov swings the axe to become the great man, Julavits’s Bena drowns her son in a more unambiguously defensible way—to save him from the gruesome punishment of the seizures that’ve made him a blob of a human, and also, to spare him, Beloved-style, from the burdensome world that, seizures aside, plagues her and everyone around her—the book is set on the hardpan, unforgiving high desert of Pueblo, Colorado. Murder elevates both Raskolnikov and Bena, opening them up to expanded consciousness. But you get the sense that, unlike Raskolnikov, who paid the price for his crime by falling into an instant wormhole of turbulence, Bena’s going to be better off—not just in an existential way, but in every way. Because Bena loved her son. This is never in doubt. Bena can rest assured that she acted in compliance with her mother’s love. But if this murder doesn’t violate a mother’s love, then things begin to open up. Because if murder can’t violate a mother’s love, what can?

Reading The Mineral Palace, there’s this difficult sense that, for Bena, killing her son was the right thing to do in order to take a step forward, in order to reclaim her life, in order to shed the vise grip that’s got her locked down in Pueblo. The murder liberates Bena. And it liberates her because she’s shed the burden of her suffering infant, but also because murder is now fair game. It’s as if Julavits has crossed a line in the sand, and now, mother’s love is subject to an expanded definition, and Bena herself, and what she’s capable of, is expanded too: she’s become bigger, she’s become dauntless, and she did this by inverting conventional expectations of morality and motherhood.

More than just liberating Bena, the murder liberates Julavits as a writer. The Mineral Palace is a hard, bloodless act of faith to a cold world view, with writing as tough as the high desert. “Bena took a cautious sip from the cup. She couldn’t tell if it was the elder-blow leaves or the water, but the tea was more skunky and foul than any she’d ever tasted.” In The Mineral Palace, Julavits’s writing makes the Depression feel like the only logical product of the barren landscape.

But her next book, The Effects of Living Backwards (2003), is a funny, inventive spree. As if, rather than getting locked up for the murder she devised in The Mineral Palace, Julavits has just been released, out from jail, into the exuberant turmoil of life in the wild.

Living Backwards is about two sisters who have a heated relationship. Alice, the protagonist, is chaste, while Edith is promiscuous. The two of them are on a plane to Morocco. Then, the plane gets hijacked. But the catch is that nobody knows if this hijacking is terrorism, some form of anti-terrorism, or all just a game. A lively narrative of unspooling uncertainties follows, with explicit meditations on whether or not certainty even matters, fueled by prolonged sparring between Alice and Edith:

“I’m older,” Edith said. “And prettier.”
“You should be more mature about this,” I responded. “You should watch your weight.”
“We never did say what we were betting,” she said.
“Winning will be my pleasure,” I taunted.
She scowled and flipped furiously through her magazine.
“So,” she said. “He wouldn’t.”
“He wouldn’t what?”
wouldn’t,” she repeated frostily.

Their sparring is relentless, and it makes you want to beg the sisters to hug each other and call it quits. You want the sisters to get off the plane, and you want Alice and Edith to give up their games. The solution to both these problems would be a hyper-sincerity, one true enough to get the sisters to see eye-to-eye, true enough to get the terrorists/anti-terrorists to deliver a straight answer. But such a sincerity doesn’t come.

Instead, Alice opts to sustain the games, to abide the uncertainty. She turns down a chance at real romantic love. She chooses to live “a fuller life in pretend places for [her] own benefit.” She chooses not to “outgrow the hypothetical.” And she does this because it’s only with the benefit of imagination that she becomes the fully unfurled Alice. She doesn’t want to actually be with a man if doing so is going to wreck her right to imagine being with one. She wants to be what her imagination allows her to be.

If Alice gets outside herself to a fuller life through imagination, Mary in The Uses of Enchantment (2006) goes one step further and uses her imagination to turn her life into a story. Mary’s a field hockey-skirt clad fourteen-year-old who contrives her own kidnapping, and then, stakes her identity on the lies she tells about what may or may not have happened off in the woods with a much older man. Mary, unable to give up her fabricating, becomes a story that’s bigger than her, independent of her, a web of lies that she’s the source of but controls only nominally. Nobody knows what happened to her in that cabin. But, nobody can stop talking about her. And, by being talked about, by cultivating uncertainty, she becomes a myth, a personage that lives literally outside her body. Julavits illustrates this outside-the-body factor by positioning Mary in a grand lineage, one that includes both Freud’s Dora and also Bettina Spencer—an older, problematic graduate of Mary’s prep school whose transgressions had a lot in common with Mary’s. Mary secures her status as a story by becoming a carrier, or a vessel, for a story that started long before she was born, and will keep on going long after she walks off into obscurity when the book draws to a close.

In The Mineral Palace, Bena commits a crime to go beyond herself, redefine mother’s love, and forge a liberated life. In Living Backwards, Alice uses her imagination to approach the domain of a fuller love than the love she’s actually known. In Enchantment, Mary becomes more than a person by becoming a story, and, Julavits’s preoccupation with women going beyond themselves reaches a point where she can give her theme a name: Mary gets diagnosed “hyper radiant.” And, likely thanks to this stage in the theme’s development, Enchantment is my favorite of Julavits’s books. The prose, unlike The Mineral Palace’s hardness, and Living Backwards’ jumpiness (which I also really like), is graceful, poised, and slyly threatening. “Voila, [Mary] said. She held up a flattened cigarette, the filter dangling by a tiny hinge of paper. Got a light?” It’s a pressure cooker, and all you want is for Mary to break down and confess. You’re desperate for there to be some kind of truth, some kind of foundation underneath the fourteen-year-old. But Julavits doesn’t give in to that pressure, and instead, she writes as close as possible to a kind of narrative ledge, or rather, a narrative membrane, one that’s both paper-thin and of infinite strength, a membrane that’s between us and the truth, one which we thrust our bodies into with all our might but will never quite break through. That’s the sense I got with Enchantment—of trying to force myself through some kind of portal while Julavits both egged me on and kept pushing me back.

In The Vanishers, Julavits at last breaks through that membrane. She introduces the idea of not just overcoming constraints, of going beyond oneself, but of escaping one’s life altogether, in the form of vanishing, a sort of living suicide.

On the one hand, this is admirably ambitious—Julavits pushes her preoccupation as far as it can go, and the development feels natural: exceed, exceed, exceed, escape; push, push, push, pop! But on the other hand, taking things this far is problematic. Like, imagine you’re a person who loves climbing mountains more than anything, and spends a decade or two on the trail, and then, gets to the peak, and then, unsure of what to do, tries to enjoy the view but instead drifts into a meditation over where you’ve been, but never really attains any peace in that meditation, and rather, feels uneasy about having nowhere else to go, and then, feels uneasy again because, having nowhere to go, you’ve begun to doubt your methods, and begun to wonder whether being on that trail was worthwhile in the first place. That’s what reading The Vanishers is like.

The Vanishers is about Julia Severn, an assistant to Madame Ackermann, a woman with psychic powers. Julia has better powers than Ackermann, and on account of this, the two have a falling out. Julia struggles to cope with her psychic powers while Madame Ackermann taunts her with cryptic emails. Julia discovers the possibility of vanishing, and now, you never really know who’s actually there and who’s not, or what being “there” even means. Julia interacts with a series of shifty characters in an effort to investigate an artsy pornographer named Dominique Varga, and ultimately, to investigate her mother’s suicide.

In both Living Backwards and Enchantment, Julavits sustains narrative energy with fantastically hostile, electric rivalries. In Living Backwards, it’s between Alice and Edith. In Enchantment, it’s Mary and her family, but mostly, Mary and her shrink. But in The Vanishers, as Julia tries to come to terms with her psychic powers, she has rivalries, but none of them ever gain any traction. Characters named Borka and Alwyn flit in and out of the story, always pushing an agenda, always holding out some kind of rhetorical carrot for Julia to snap at. But the very possibility that the people in this world can vanish renders them disembodied, shifty, and faceless. Rivalries here would be like having a rivalry with a staticky ghost. Combat in this world of the busted membrane would be like a matador stabbing over and over at a holographic bull that keeps slipping in and out of reception.

The book has an uneasy feeling. Julavits is both grasping for the tension of the rivalries that have served her so well, but unsure of whether or not she wants to keep using them. As if, now that she’s broken through, she wants to try something new but also doesn’t want to give up on what she’s taken so much care to develop. With Ackermann and Julia, the rivalry’s as productive as any in Julavits’s work. But she cuts Ackermann out of most of the story, reducing her to a shadowy figure, communicating by cryptic email.

Beyond rivalries, Julavits seems uneasy with her frames of reference, too. While in Enchantment, Julavits calls Mary hyper radiant, in The Vanishers, Julia Severn’s diagnosis is “electromagnetic hyperactivity.” While in Living Backwards, we had The International Institute for Terrorist Studies launch an attack on the plane, in The Vanishers, we have The Institute of Integrated Parapsychology attack Julia. While in The Mineral Palace, we had infanticide, in The Vanishers, we have a mother who commits suicide when Julia’s only a month old. And while Living Backwards and Enchantment provide natural settings for Julavits’s writing about upper-middle classness, when she tries the same in The Vanishers with Julia’s father and stepmother, the examination of class feels misplaced. Because in a world where people vanish, what does class have to do with anything?

None of this is laziness on Julavits’s part. She’s not recycling ideas. Rather, she’s pushing them as far as she can, and then, at the peak of whatever this mountain is I’ve described, meditating on her own work, and her own preoccupations: now that she’s pushed things all the way to the point of total escape, it’s time to reflect. But this meditation is of the writerly variety rather than the Zen variety, the sort of meditation in which we chew our nails, toss and turn, and write lengthy, under-punctuated emails to our friends about how wracked we are that something good has happened.

This uneasy meditation comes through most clearly in the way Julavits closes The Vanishers. In Living Backwards and Enchantment, she leaves things open-ended, squarely in the realm of games: Alice writes a love letter she’ll never send, because imagined love affairs sustain her longer and better than real ones; and Mary turns her back to her shrink, wanders off, and leaves her story beyond her, set to continue on into the future without her, in the form of the book she knows her shrink is all set to write.

These open ends are votes for the imagination as our most vital, redemptive power, our one tool in the effort to become more than we are. But in The Vanishers, by giving us the option to go all the way, to follow the imagination into a shadow life, freed of family and friends, she arrives at the fact that total escape is deeply troubling, and now, Julavits can’t let imagination redeem her book. She’s reached the end of the line. So, she meditates on home and family, and on the pain that lights the fuse on the desire to escape to begin with: towards the end, a “spiritual midwife” tells Julia, “[Your mother] lives in you… Decomposing in you. Poisoning you. Attacking you.”

I think The Vanishers is the work of an extremely daring writer, one who’s willing to test limits, and try and say anything. But also, one who’s at a crossroads. I expect that, in her next book, we are going to see something dramatically new and different.

Tom Dibblee is Trop’s editor. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train and his nonfiction has appeared in Pacific Standard, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Point. He lives in Los Angeles.