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The Girl in the Woods

In March 2003, the young American novelist Heidi Julavits wrote a long, wandering essay for the first issue of The Believer, the new literary magazine of which she was a founding editor (with backing from Dave Eggers, the memoirist, novelist, admirable philanthropist, and canny literary entrepreneur behind the McSweeney’s imprint). Picturing herself working at home, pajama-clad, sipping a beer, and finding the courage to forgo safe politeness and speak the truth, Julavits described the shrinking of a creativity-sustaining literary culture. She declared that readers and writers were poorly served by a growing tendency among book reviewers to skip past substantive engagement and indulge in lazy inflationary praise, or else its opposite: a “hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt.” Julavits’s name for this smug tone, “snark,” resonated enough with the reader’s experience to suggest that she was on to something and maybe even gutsy for saying it. On the other hand, where a detached editor might have urged her to tighten her analysis—prune this unfairness, anchor that blitheness—she tended to take the less mediated path. In places her argument sounded less like an argument than a theater piece in the voice of a rather high-strung character named Heidi Julavits.

And so the essay provoked about as well as it persuaded: a bemused Clive James Op-Ed in The New York Times, a piece in The New Republic (publisher of book reviews by Dale Peck that Julavits singled out for their harshness) accusing The Believer of taking “masturbatory pleasure in the act of reading” and Julavits’s manifesto of reading like a “publicity spree in the guise of a mission statement.” Here was one of those debates, with a close parallel in contemporary politics and journalism, which we seem fated to endure lately—one view champions fresh experimenting and earnest conviction, another declares its duty to guard the gates of critical seriousness.

I bring up the essay because the question of whether one person can, in fact, ever truly be listened to by another turns out to be of special concern to Julavits in her fiction. But where in the Believer piece she declared her idealistic intent to open up discussion, enlarge perspectives (“reviews should be an occasion, not for tears or vendettas or shoe licking, but for dialogues”; “finally, I would hope to urge readers—and, by extension, writers—to reach beyond their usual notions of what is accessible or possible”) each of her three novels has been staged in a world of awful listeners. And each has featured a seemingly passive female protagonist who lacks the psychic wherewithal to make herself heard.

The Mineral Palace (2000), Julavits’s first novel and easily her weakest, follows a young mother who moves with her husband, an emotionally absent doctor, from Minnesota to Pueblo, Colorado. This is in the 1930s—or rather a strange, virtual rendering of the Depression out west, thick with metaphor and a dusty, sordid, slightly déjà vu atmosphere, as if instead of revisiting noir Los Angeles, the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit had somehow ventured into the mountains to resurrect a slum out of Steinbeck. There’s a melodramatic side plot about a prostitute and a cowboy. But at the core of the story is the communication gap between wife and husband, which finds weird embodiment in the couple’s flaccid infant son.

With her second novel it became clearer that Julavits may actually be choosing to write about a world that is only partly grounded in the real, and stage-lit here and there with a distorting aura of the absurd. The Effect of Living Backwards is set sometime after the events of September 11, and concerns the hijacking of Moroccan Air Flight 919. Or maybe not: instead of a hijacking, we’re led to wonder early on if this could be a cruel exercise, a mobile lab experiment in human reaction, staged by an Institute for Terrorist Studies in Switzerland.

The novel’s heroine is a plain social worker named Alice, traveling with her exhibitionist, man-crazy sister Edith (the names evoke the nineteenth-century Liddell sisters Edith and Alice, inspirations for Lewis Carroll’s young adventuress, just as the novel’s title phrase is a quote from Through the Looking Glass) to Edith’s wedding in Melilla. As the “crisis” unfolds, Alice and other hostages are asked by a supposedly blind “terrorist” to make unthinkable ethical choices: whether to shoot a healthy person, for instance, or the dead body of a man who’s had a heart attack. On top of this, Alice gets pressed into service as the passengers’ intermediary in radio talks with a teasing “negotiator,” toward whom she starts to harbor inappropriate feelings. She’s frightened, of course. But she begins to discover within herself buried impulses of yearning, even mischief.

Julavits is a writer of idiosyncratic talents—inventive, clearly, but at her best when one of her eerie physical descriptions or satirical twists of the knife brings a character into focus. She has a palpable drive to tackle problems of novel-writing; often you can feel her willing herself to risk some off-the-wall answer to a perennial novelistic question, such as how to balance observing and imagining, or how reliably or unreliably to narrate. And she delves into a theme, the hanging back from life of the smart but timid woman, that’s challenging because it’s defined by a failure to act.

Yet The Effect of Living Backwards presents what you might call “boundary issues.” It’s hard to follow quickly introduced characters through elliptical dialogue across quasi-fantasy physical space. One starts to wonder, too, fairly soon into these surreal-board-game antics, if Julavits hasn’t conjured the world-crisis backdrop as a way of getting at Alice’s far less consequential problems. The “terrorist” and the “negotiator” are revealed to be enemy half-brothers; their rivalry parallels the toxic contest that has gone on between Alice and Edith for two decades. Here Julavits is on familiar ground, despite the book’s otherwise flamboyant departures from realism, and this is where her interest seems to lie: not in our current warped geopolitics, not even so much in the anxious texture of life after September 11, but in the way that, even as adults, we’re still defined by our ancient roles in an intrafamily competition for love.

In her Believer essay, Julavits took issue with literary critics who are too quick to put down an ambitious failure. To attempt the “interesting,” to tackle a challenge even if it doesn’t quite come off, deserves more credit than this, she wrote. Her latest novel announces its ambition with its title, borrowed from Bruno Bettelheim’s famous 1976 psychoanalytic study of the power of fairy tales. For Bettelheim, the tales allow young children early, safe access outside their selves to universal emotions like fear and anger that might otherwise overwhelm them. The stories assist in the forming of a fledgling self, ready for healthy give-and-take with the world. Bettelheim’s dogmatic certainty about his thesis and his elaborate, sometimes literal-minded reading of Freudian symbols into the fairy tales seem like the kind of thing Julavits would be inclined to mock. On top of which, this writer tends to give us adult characters who, when it comes to a healthy give-and-take with the world, are a bit behind schedule. What use could enchantment have for them?

Julavits’s prose flows more fluently than before, and most of the time she corrals her motley concerns into a richer scheme—the writing here is both tidier and more relaxed. A good part of The Uses of Enchantment takes place in 1999. But the plot mainly turns around what may or may not have happened many years earlier to a then-sixteen-year-old named Mary Veal. One afternoon in November 1985, after field hockey practice at her all-girls school in West Salem, Massachusetts, Mary disappeared. A few weeks later she reappeared, in decent shape physically but hazy about what happened.

To tell the story, Julavits weaves together three distinct narrative strands. The most straightforwardly entertaining of these describes Mary’s treatment after her return in 1986, as recalled by her psychiatrist at the time, one E. Karl Hammer. (Dr. Hammer, meet your patient, Miss Veal.) In these sessions, Mary speaks fleetingly and vaguely of a man named “K”—possibly a longtime friend of her parents, possibly some kind of abductor and/or rapist. In her story, Mary also throws around some heavy symbols. There was a tomahawk that hovered in the air, she says, and there were moaning voices.

But after offering these tantalizing hints, the young patient dodges the doctor’s questions like a boxer, refusing to bear out the jargon he plucks from his theory grab bag. Dr. Hammer is rattled. He grasps that Mary is on some level recklessly riffing in the moment, weaving into her shape-shifting story motifs that echo Freud’s notorious account of his patient Dora (whose tales of sexual abuse Freud interpreted as neurotic fantasies) and details (like the tomahawk) that seem to evoke the witch hysteria of Salem’s past. But he’s too thin-skinned and careerist to deal responsibly with the girl in front of him who still obviously needs help. Instead, he gets to work on an exposé, soon to be a best seller, in which he accuses Mary (barely disguised in his writing as a girl named Miriam) of perpetrating a hoax. The doctor is a betrayer of trust and a priggish mediocrity, but he’s in over his head and courting his downfall; his account reminds you of one of those gentlemen egoists who gets reeled into the spider’s web in an old-fashioned mystery of the Wilkie Collins school.

Another narrative strand, told in the third person but with sympathy for Mary’s point of view, follows her as an adult in 1999. The death of her mother from a brutal cancer has called her back to Massachusetts from Oregon, where, with no promising career or relationship to speak of, she had been leading a sad, killing-time life: “After a childhood spent plotting and attempting to assert control over the controllable, she’d downsized her ambitions to practically nothing.” Outside of memories we don’t really meet the mother, Paula, but we gather that she was an activist for historic preservation, a bit too vigilant about social status, and more devoted to things than people; it was also mysteriously important to her that among her ancestors was a woman executed for witchcraft.

At a stiff post-funeral reception in the family home, Mary’s two grownup sisters, an unflappable lesbian and a brittle bad poet, appear to form a catty tag team against her. Her avoidant father is just waiting until he can move out of the house and into a golf-course condo. But the most devastating betrayal is still her mother’s. As Paula neared death she apparently refused to talk to Mary, for reasons that seem connected to the girl’s notoriety so many years ago.

Pause for a moment to note the snickering sisters, the absentee father, the potentially wicked and abandoning mother whose love is nevertheless still craved. Could we be in fairy-tale territory after all? It’s the mystery of Mary’s disappearance that the crucial third narrative strand presumes to lead us through, in intermittent chapters that appear under the heading “What Might Have Happened.” The coy title of these sections situates us once again in this writer’s oddly cherished hypothetical world, as does Julavits’s choice in these chapters to refer to sixteen-year-old Mary generically as “the girl.” Straight away, on the second page of the novel, “the girl” notices a preppy man in early middle age—called from here on “the man”—sitting in an old gray Mercedes outside her school athletic field. He’s been watching her, and she has watched him watching. She taps on his window, asks for a dime for the pay phone, and soon finds herself accepting his offer of a ride home. Self-conscious but not self-aware, she imagines herself to be exercising the powers that ripe girlhood has granted her in arousing his interest. She is the initiator here—isn’t she?

Julavits is not interested in the well-worn, social-problem approach to troubled adolescence: at no point does “the girl” do anything so predictable as fall in with the wrong crowd or get herself pierced. Instead, Julavits explores on an almost symptomatic level the sad self-detachment, the paradoxical romantic self-absorption, and the youthful wish to test her powers that join forces in the girl’s leap into the unknown. As it happens, at first the man drives her to her house, just like he said he would. The girl is the one who lingers in his car; she is the one who after a while suggests they go somewhere for a bite to eat. Thus begin many hours of driving around, interrupted by stops at the greasy spoons and other places people stop at while driving around, and marked by increasingly provocative verbal sparring and the giddy, ominous sense that each is pushing the other across a threshold. The girl’s dialogue is mostly passive-aggressive verbal cleverness that can’t quite find the right outlet. (The question of how “average” or how “extraordinary” the girl might be is inconsistently handled by Julavits; she is presented as meek, but at times her bold knowingness makes her sound more like thirty-eight than a shy sixteen.) Meanwhile her body speaks its own lively language of distress—she has a way, when upset, of gagging and theatrically clutching at her throat. Her inner life is a string of restless thoughts:

The girl did not ask where are we going? Possibly a restaurant. Possibly his house, where he now kept a freezerful of shrimp at his ready disposal. Possibly to his boat (if he had a boat), where he would offer her a beer and they would sit in the damp cabin and the sex, if they had it, would be the chafing kind that would leave friction burns in places he hadn’t even touched her. Possibly to the woods, where he would rape and dismember her and promptly forget he’d even met her, because his short-term memory, too, might be compromised. She allowed these blacker possibilities to slide in and out of her consciousness without paying them any more attention than the blander ones; she did not want to seem nervous or immature to the man, because she knew his willingness to be seduced by her depended on this….

How one feels about this novel may depend on how one feels about two of the standout qualities in this passage. The first quality is “the girl’s” masochism—her passivity, made prickly soon enough by her urge to poke and prod at this lonely, divorced, sort-of-smart-but-feckless man’s weakness. The second is Julavits’s notable dependence on the word “possibly.”

Longish stretches of conversations in The Uses of Enchantment take place in this speculative limbo, as “the girl” spins out elaborate stories of who the man might be, then passes them to him like a baton for him to run with. This telegraphed uncertainty, these frequent jumps to the meta-level at which not just the girl but also storytelling is at stake, create a visceral yet distancing effect. For Julavits, the pair’s sudden freedom to invent seems liberating, but readers, often several times per page, get a half-connection, followed by a pulling back. Eventually the man and the girl end up in a cabin in the woods—yes, we must be in fairy-tale territory, but it’s a dark one—where an attic gives them freer range to play an escalating power game. What we are permitted to witness gets kinkier and more tense, though as yet it remains chaste. A blindfold comes into play. Boundaries of psychic self-protection get crossed. And here Julavits draws a curtain over the story. As to what happened later on, we’re left to our own conclusions.

The persistence and the moments of flair with which Julavits renders her theme are impressive. One can sense, too, that she has her finger on the pulse of some current problems in the culture. How much sexual agency does an adolescent have? We mask our terror about the question with overreaching theories. Another, undoubtedly related question: At what point these days can you say a person has moved beyond the worldview she formed in childhood? Near the end of the novel the adult Mary, to her surprise—she thinks she’s going to see Dr. Hammer—winds up on the doorstep of her old partner-in-escape, “the man.” The pair fall right back into their game-playing and head for another hostile catharsis; along the way, though, he gives her hints of information that help her toward a better understanding of her past. Even if her parents were self-absorbed and neglectful, they are not beyond forgiveness, she starts to realize. Other people have their reasons, and their pain.

One can appreciate here Julavits’s consistent concern with solipsism: her curiosity about how people can possibly correct misassembled versions of the past, and her worry that, contra Bruno Bettelheim, instead of gaining access to universal emotions, we’re each walking around in the bubble of our own story. But one can also feel Julavits’s own sometimes sealed-off involvement in her ideas, her uncertainty about whether the act of storytelling deserves parody, anger, or respect for its dangerous powers; her tendency toward the clinical is only partly warmed up at the end by the kind of basic therapeutic revelation (other people are people, too) that one expects of a young-adult novel.

In fact, some of the best moments in The Uses of Enchantment are the well-turned observations. There is the sturdy-Gothic New England atmosphere of Mary’s school, with its “barred rear windows and its ominous smokestack and its industrial hum,” and a sharp, deflating picture of Boston conformity. There’s some especially good 1980s satire of an indomitable feminist psychiatrist, a Dr. Roz Biedelman, who emerges from her mustard Volvo in “an ankle-length kilim coat that lent her the hulking appearance of a Mongol raider.” At many such moments, an interesting mind has interacted with what feels like something real. Elsewhere, we get propositions about reality that we might want to challenge, but they are delivered as a performance, an experience to submit to. It’s an interesting conception of this most communicative of art forms, undeniably. And still one senses that Julavits’s writing, fleshed out with a fuller range of feeling, could aim higher.

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