When a Thinker for Hire reads a book and doesn’t blog about it, does she really read it?
Time, thou hast made an enemy of the Thinker who is only metaphorically for Hire. Take this sword thrust in our perpetual battle for my writerly soul: a book reviewlet.
Heidi Julavits’ The Vanishers is about a bright-but-sad 20-something woman who drops out in shame from an elite psychics’ college after her mentor wages vengeance-style psychic war upon her. Her mom committed suicide when she was an infant, and most of the plot involves a complex international whodunnit in which her grief is given tangible life by a variety of institutions that take seriously alternative ways of understanding the world.
Like an elite university for psychics.
Like a company that allows you to stay alive while vanishing from your life.
Like a clinic for recovering from plastic surgery and/or schizophrenia.
1. What I loved about the book
The Vanishers brings an apparatus of analysis, technical skill, jargon, and institutional hierarchies to areas of experience (psychics! but also emotions! moms and substitute moms and daughters and substitute daughters!) that are dismissed as nonsense by many, as ephemeral, subjective, and flimsy by a few.
That is, it legitimates more “feminine” types of knowledge with more “masculine” structures. Like a university, tenure, international conspiracy, corporate interest.
The protagonist takes hilarious courses to train in being a psychic, for example. The book takes this completely marginal, subjective type of knowledge and systematizes it, legitimates it, employs it as central to the protagonist’s emotional journey.
Which raises provocative questions about the nature of grief. In what way does human experience depend on all these hidden sources of knowledge that are secret even to our own selves? How could we legitimate and systematize secret knowledge, and would we want to? What kinds of experiences count as “real”???
The last question is particularly potent for feminists who care about the continued delegitimation of women’s experience during, to take just one example, the legislative process.
2. What I didn’t love as much
Which brings me to the only real problem I had with the book: there was so much plot that these central premises and questions were not as well developed as they could have been. All the mysteries doubles, institutes, and the like lightened the book’s emotional weight.
3. I need to say it
Most characters are women. Dope.
4. Stay tuned
Upcoming book reviewlets: Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor, Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes, some other book I got from the library and read a few months back but need a sec to remember.