Of all the fantastical characters who populate the paranormal literary landscape, psychics might be the most relatable. It's not just because places where psychics can train actually exist in real life — both online programs and brick-and-mortar universities — or because you're more likely to run into someone who claims to have mind-reading, future-telling, past-life-entering abilities than you are a purported vampire. And it's not necessarily a belief in extrasensory perception that makes us sympathetic to such "seers."
It's simply that it's not so hard to imagine the breach of our interior lives — the terror of our inner selves, our pasts, presents, and futures — being fodder for other people's head games.
For example: While the "psychic attack" that serves as the catalyst in Maine native Heidi Julavits's new book may be a device of magical realism, it exists in a very plausible plane. The jealousy-fueled attack involves a mentor (whose power is ebbing) siccing a spectral wolf monster onto the susceptible mind of a protégé (whose abilities are blooming) — a telepathic injury that has debilitating physical aftereffects including phantom illnesses and insomnia. It reads as just one or two steps removed from the psychological assaults we inflict on each other daily.
In her fourth novel, The Vanishers, Julavits tells the story of Julia Severn, a gifted twenty-something clairvoyant at the New England Institute of Integrated Parapsychology (or just "the Workshop"), and the very convoluted route she takes to make peace with her mother's suicide.
"I'd searched for her in the bottoms of teacups and under the bed in which she died, the only grave she'd been afforded because her body had been burned, her ashes scattered on a mountain that was always cold when she visited," Julia says of her dead mother, toward whom she harbors understandable ambivalence. "I had looked into the backyard brush fires my father fed with things a husband should not burn. But I had never found her. She had not wanted to be found. And if I had gone to the Workshop to sharpen my finding abilities so that I could track this most reluctant woman down — so what? Sillier reasons drive people to read the air."
Julia is the victim of the psychic trauma that takes place at the beginning of the story; her adversary, at least superficially, is the aging medium Madame Ackerman. Of course, Julia's physical and emotional injuries have been at least partially inflicted by someone else — someone much closer to her heart. As she reels from the experience, Julia becomes entangled in what can only be described as a parapsychological mystery.
HEIDI JULAVITS Speaking about characters (unlikable ones, at that!) at 1:30 pm Saturday.
It would be futile to offer a plot summary for this fast-paced, often-outlandish narrative that introduces both Julia and the reader to avant-garde pornographers, a corporation that helps people "vanish" from their own lives, a rehabilitation facility that caters both to psychic-attack victims and those recovering from plastic surgery, and ridiculous academic types. Let it suffice to say that it is sometimes difficult to linger on Julavits's very lovely, often wry, prose when you are hurtling through the pages, trying to keep track of who's who and what's what.
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