Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Sunday Book: The Vanishers - Heidi Julavits

Happy new year, one and all. I have some seasonally appropriate posts in the pipes (2014 in Books and Films at the least) but they are taking forever to write because there were a lot of both and I didn't keep on top of them. I let them pile up into a giant heap of stress and blurred memories. I completely forgot to even try and make any resolutions this year and I'm fine with that but a blog resolution right here, right now (already basically formulated in my previous post): regularity. Little and often. It may not be as thorough as I would like but better a slight record than no record? I will try at least.

In the spirit of that resolution… The first book I finished in 2015 was The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits. I don’t have an elegant essay to write about this odd novel (as if I ever do!) but it was deeply weird and interesting and I want to acknowledge both the book itself and my dalliance with it. I didn't love nor, I think, did I fully understand it but a lot of its ideas will be bouncing around my head for a while. There were mother/daughter relationships, psychic attacks and fossilized geodes of meat. There was illness, mental and physical, suicide and grief. The alternate vicious competitiveness and otherworldly woolliness of academics made me smile. People vanish and manipulate each other and undergo drastic facial surgery to embody the dead. Dark, surreal pornography may or may not be art. There are multiple mysteries and detectives with their own agenda. Really, it's very strange.

I wouldn't say that it is the main psychological/philosophical drive of the novel but, perhaps because it is something I have been thinking about lately, I found it's consideration of vampirism and memory, or the vampirism of memory, particularly interesting. How we mine our memories for material, experience, emotional heft and at what cost. Julavits discusses 'overrides' in terms of computer programming and method acting - how we overlay and destroy memories, how we risk sucking them dry of meaning or even existence. I suspect it is something that most writers think about a lot. I certainly do. Where do you draw the line, what do you write about, what is left? It felt good to encounter those concerns explicitly.


(Gorgeous cover by Emily Mahon)

"Julavits is at her acrobatically linguistic best here. Nearly every page contains a showstopping description or insight. [...] Julia’s narrative voice is superb. Funny, self-deprecating, exquisitely attuned, she speaks as if the entire acreage of her skin were a listening device. Nothing is lost on her, and she’s as unsparing about herself as she is of those around her. This pointed, fragile honesty makes her a winsome heroine, even in the most far-fetched of circumstances. [...] While the language remains vivid, its satisfactions are overwhelmed by the confusion of the overdetermined plot. Regrettably, “The Vanishers” becomes a victim of its own dizzying coincidences." Cristina Garcia - NYT

"Ms Julavits is a keen observer of the high drama of very smart and very anxious people. An evocative writer, she conjures up the supernatural in a way that feels plausible, and she knows just how to convey the shifting darkness of a forest at night. Occasionally a metaphor is so lavish that it slides away from the story, such as “a filament of drool catching the gray New Hampshire light…making her look as though she were seeping mercury from the mouth.” But this lends the novel a heightened awareness, a haunting Sylvia Plath-like resonance." The Economist

To Read List: Women in Clothes. This 2014 kind-of-anthology about women and clothes (no way) and dressing and fashion and possessions and emotions, the whole messy bundle, was already on my To Read List. I love women, I love clothes, I love when real consideration is given to the small choices that make up our days. I am very interested in Sheila Heti, particularly having read HSAPB?, and I've enjoyed my fleeting interactions with Leanne Shapton's art online. Heidi Julavits makes up their trio and is a founding editor at The Believer. The Vanishers certainly demonstrates that she has weird, deep, dark thoughts and an eye for detail - I can't wait to read her take on 'fashion'.

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