A mystery novel whose chief mystery is just what kind of novel it actually is, Heidi Julavits' The Vanishers opens with the most naturally talented student at the magic school enjoying the plum assignment of transcribing the dream-talk of that school's top professor. But Julavits, like her characters, makes everything complicated, even that beach-reading premise. That magic school is a collegiate department dedicated to ESP, which in this novel's world is not just real but reproducible: To advance, students have to focus their minds until they crystallize a slab of raw meat. Julavits jabs her sharp elbows at academic rivalries and the conventions of simpler magic-school stories, the kind where some chosen one is, by dint of parentage, given to wonder-making beyond the abilities of the faculty. But she quickly ushers us onto something more urgent — and more tied to emotional reality of life itself than of those beach reads. Turns out Julia, that prize student, is detested by Madam Ackermann, that professor, and that Ackermann seems to have invested her considerable psychic power into an attack on Julia's mind.
As in The Effect of Living Backwards, a blistering comedy in which a highjacking seems less dangerous than the narrator's sibling rivalry, Julavits builds memorable novels out of the everyday grudges her women harbor toward each other. Both books are fleet, rich, nerve-wracking, and stunt-like, distinguished by brittle comic dialogue and dead-on descriptive prose that glances against poetry. In each, every assumption she leads you to make gets upended and trashed, except perhaps the suggestion, underpinning both, that the awfulness of the world and the awfulness within each of us forever birth and shape each other.
Just as you start making sense of that school for parapsychology, The Vanishers takes another form. Shadowy characters set Julia on a perverse hero's quest/mystery story that will take her through Europe's finest sanitariums, recovery centers, and nightmares — these last coming out of nowhere and imagined with a horror writer's gusto. Julia's assignment: Marshal her own psychic powers to track down the whereabouts of a notorious filmmaker/pornographer, a French genius/monster best known for movies like the one about sex with the car-crashed corpse of a real-life missing heiress. Novels being novels, Julia suspects that filmmaker has a connection to her own mother, a suicide. Meanwhile, Madam Ackermann's from-a-distance brain attacks continue, and the world of The Vanishers grows ever stranger: Chasing down the pornographer runs Julia across a company that will "vanish" people tempted to commit suicide and instead set them up in new lives, leaving only a farewell video for those a vanisher has left behind. Like everything in Julavits' fiction, this grows more fascinating — and mysterious — the more you read. That's also true for the fiction itself — here is a novelist whose audacity is matched only by her inventiveness and power. And, shit, she's funny, too.