Novelist Heidi Julavits talks about stripping away all that stuff that's a 'waste of time,' and re-embracing Y.A. and early '90s feminism
5:02 pm Mar. 21, 2012
Speaking last night at the Center for Fiction, where she appeared in conversation with the writer John Wray, Heidi Julavits copped to being a Hunger Games fanatic.
Julavits' latest novel, The Vanishers, with its briskly moving story about a young psychic suffering attacks from her former mentor, does seem like a novel adolescents would love.
Wray, a friend and former poker buddy of Julavits, said that while reading the novel he had also been struck by its Y.A.-ness. The genre, which for years has been one of the book industry's rare growth sectors, has in recent years set off debates about whether such books are, in fact, for adults as well. Julavits had no problem accepting the label.
“It's totally like a Y.A. novel,” she said with some enthusiasm.
The author of four novels and a founding editor at The Believer, Julavits cast her experience writing The Vanishers as a desire to get back to what excited her about books when she was a child.
“I recently decided I wanted to reread all the books that kept me up all night,” she said. “I'm trying to replicate the reading experience of those books.”
Gone, then, are ruminative descriptions of landscape and other supposed ephemera, which Julavits said were, in her previous books, “a waste of time.” The results of such pruning show. The Vanishers is a speedy 304 pages. Wray called it—with, he made clear, no intent of being pejorative—“a page-turner.”
The Vanishers is the story of Julia Severn, who, when the novel opens, attends a school for gifted psychics in a small New Hampshire town. But The Institute for Parapsychology's headmaster, Madame Ackermann, is suffering from the age-induced diminishment of her psychic gifts and of her beauty; those qualities, combined with a jealous and imperious nature, make her ripe for villainy. When Julia arrives, she at first becomes Ackermann's protege, but her impressive psychic ability—which Julia herself doesn't fully recognize—earns her Ackermann's ire, and Julia is essentially forced to take a leave from the school. But that is not before Ackermann launches a “psychic attack” on Julia that leaves her with a raft of physical ailments (from migraines to eczema) and prescriptions for 26 medications.
That is just the first few dozen pages of the novel. The rest of the story largely concerns Julia's involvement in a search for Dominique Varga, a French filmmaker whose rare films are both controversial and highly sought after; Julia's participation in a “vanishing” program (where people make suicide-note-like farewell videos and leave their old lives behind); her recovery from the psychic attack; and her reckoning with her mother's suicide years earlier. Psychic “regressions”—essentially mental re-enactments of past events, including those which she never experienced—allow Julia to traverse the astral plane in search of clues to the various questions haunting her, which inevitably have something in common.
The book sits in a loose orbit with novels like Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City and Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics. They share a sensibility that is defiantly eclectic, as well as certain key elements.
Like in those other novels, The Vanishers features a hawkishly observant, linguistically gifted narrator; a brilliant but remote father figure (Julia's father studies sinkholes, particularly “a man-made phenomenon called 'chemical weathering'”); a fixation on certain pieces of media (here, fascist propaganda, snuff videos, and the farewell videos of the vanished); and a welter of characters with Pynchonian names: Borka, Colophon, Alwyn, Irenke.
Talking at the Center for Fiction, Julavits traced the novel's genesis, in part, to her renewed interest in feminism. She talked about her own intellectual development and waxing and waning relationship to feminism, by which she seemed to mean feminist writers and thinkers rather than activism.
A women's studies minor in college, Julavits found herself drifting away from the discipline, even reading only male writers “for about five years.” But a few years ago, something changed. Susan Faludi's widely circulated October 2010 essay in Harper's Magazine, “American Electra: Feminism's ritual matricide,” which lamented the recurrent intergenerational conflict between feminists, was a wakeup call. So too was a conference at Columbia University, at which was discussed “passivity as a form of feminist resistance”—the phrase appears almost verbatim in The Vanishers—and Yoko Ono's iconic 1964 work of performance art, Cut Piece, where Ono, sitting placidly on a stage, invited audience members to cut apart her clothing.
“It's really exciting that that sort of late-'80s, early-'90s feminism is coming up a lot,” Julavits said. “That moment in feminism seems to be coming back.”
As Wray pointed out, The Vanishers has few male characters of consequence, though Julavits said that that was something she hardly took notice of before she had finished the book. Still, Wray, who, slouching in his chair, projected an I'm-just-along-for-the-ride kind of ease, had fun with the lack of testosterone.
“Reading that book as a man, it's sort of like watching Platoon as a woman,” he said, provoking laughter, and agreement, from Julavits.
Wray, who as a veteran of several bands has some experience as a performer, had some of the best lines of the evening. After stating that she preferred to emphasize sexual tension in the novel rather than the act itself, Julavits asked, “Do you write about actual sex?”
“Yeah, I was writing about actual sex earlier today,” Wray said, somewhat mischievously. He then went on a riff about how some novelists perhaps shouldn't “do” sex.
“The idea of Michael Chabon writing about sex kind of frightens me,” Wray said, his voice rising before the punchline landed. “I feel like there would be some kind of alien involved!”
For Julavits, the bonhomous back-and-forth with her friend Wray, and the frank discussions of sex and violence in literature that it included, allowed her to air some ideas about her future work. While cheerfully and fluently discussing The Vanishers she seemed eager, in the way that many novelists are after spending years on a work only to have to run through the promotional gamut of readings and events, to move on to something new—and something far different.
“My next book is just going to be: Men. Sex. And plotless.”
Event photos courtesy of The Center for Fiction.
More by this author:
- Edwidge Danticat and Salman Rushdie share stories of violence and fear, well-leavened with humor
- A comedians' live show, 'Thrilling Adventure Hour,' comes east from L.A.