The Vanishers

The highly gifted, pretty precocious student Julia Severn is studying at the Institute of Integrated Parapsychology and lands the coveted gig of recording professor Madame Ackermann’s dream-like psychic episodes in Heidi Julavits’ novel The Vanishers.

Sounds great, except Madame Ackermann is blocked. Nothing is happening when she is in this state. She is especially not finding out the file number of a film canister she’s been asked to locate. So Julia doodles away the day, finds some answers without even trying and pretends Madame Ackermann conjured them herself. Also great — until Madame Ackermann catches on to her little tricks during a routine dinner party game and then all hell breaks loose.

Julia is struck with bloating and skin conditions and all-around discomfort, seemingly the victim of Madame Ackermann’s psychic attack. Julia returns to pedestrians-ville and takes a job as a person who sits in a room pretending to talk on the phone and is hopped up on all sorts of prescriptions that dull her extra sensory perceptions. Then she comes into contact with a handful of people whose interests interlock with her own — including finding her mother, who killed herself when Julia was a month old.

Along the way Julia learns of people who vanish — as opposed to killing themselves — and go on to lead lives away from anyone and anything they know. Many leave behind a last video as a sort of farewell (or, potentially a pornographic eff you). They often spend a bit of time at a spa-like place shared by those recovering from plastic surgery. There is also a hunt for Dominique Vargas, a great filmmaker who disappeared in the mid-1980s, who seems to have ties to Julia’s mother.

This book has that wonderful trait of being something that makes a person sound dizzy and confused when the plot is explained aloud. It’s fun to be reading, but doesn’t stick to the ribs. Every time I set it down I had to backtrack at least six pages when I started again to remember this mess of people and their ticks and motives. Ultimately, this book will be remembered as having a lot of scenes spent in country rehabilitation centers and that at one point things seemed awfully Scooby Doo-ish in a moment of reveal.

The writing is fresh and quirky and descriptive, though sometimes Julavits fishtails into too cute. “Madame Ackermann telescoped her cigarette in an ashtray and stood over me.” That sort of thing.

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