The Uses of Enchantment: A Novel
by Heidi Julavits
Games Within Games
A review by Lily King
As postmodern readers, we have our sea legs by now. If we open a novel and discover that the first chapter is called "What Might Have Happened November 7, 1985," we roll with it, recognizing that the "truth" is subjective, that every story, even our own, is a hostage to memory and interpretation. In some aspects, Heidi Julavits's intricately constructed third novel, The Uses of Enchantment, is a classic postmodern examination of the complexity and irony of narrative. But relax. Julavits, in her probing of the politics of storytelling, does not deny us a good story; The Uses of Enchantment is also a highly compelling, old-fashioned quest.
The novel, divided into three rotating sections, begins with an encounter in West Salem, Mass., between an unnamed girl and an unnamed man on a road near the girl's hockey field. The man has been parking near her private school for weeks, reading the paper in his car, and is treated by the all-girl student body "as their mascot, rallying proof of their irresistibility." On this day, the girl leaves school early, taps her hockey stick on his window and accepts a ride. Julavits's depiction of this man is one of the great achievements of the novel. Though he is a self-proclaimed dullard at the height of the quiet desperation of middle age, his story, perceptions and dialogue are captivating. His lack of allure is palpable, as is the absence of passion of any kind in his life. Yet his scenes with the girl are invigorating and increasingly fraught with sexual tension, a tension not created by physical attraction or attractiveness on either part but by the desperate need they share to recreate themselves in order to connect.
In sections entitled "West Salem," we learn that this girl may have been Mary Veal, once a quiet child of WASPy, inattentive parents and an unremarkable student who disappeared for seven weeks in November 1985. Now, in 1999, this absence reverberates still, for Mary has never told the story of what happened to her. This withholding, only an exaggeration of the chronic withholding at which her family seems expert, is why Mary believes her mother refused to see her in the weeks before she died. On her return to her childhood home for the funeral, Mary hopes for a letter or some sign of forgiveness from her mother, but she finds nothing.
In the obituary, her mother is referred to as "Miriam's mother," something that disgusts family and friends, disheartens Mary, yet has no meaning for the reader until we begin the "Notes, 1986" sections, a first-person narrative by the therapist Mary was sent to after her reappearance. Initially, Dr. Hammer is eager to help Mary, sincerely trying to decipher her cryptic responses. Their dialogue is as fresh and fast-paced as that between the girl and the man, but Julavits is careful not to use the same tricks. The nameless girl is a virgin with a vague aim of seduction, which both energizes and terrifies her, whereas Mary is a vessel of anger, shame and ennui: "This couch sucks, she said. I bet you've had this couch since Oberlin. Which means you've probably had sex on it." When Dr. Hammer begins to nurse a theory that Mary faked her own disappearance, his listening becomes selective. Mary, sensing his sudden retreat, stops obfuscating. In anguished exchanges, she tries to tell him her story, but he resists, wanting only to see a lying girl he has already named Miriam for the book he will write about her.
Overtly playing on the relationship between Freud and his most famous patient, Dora, whose claims of sexual abuse Freud interpreted as fantasy, Julavits sets up a dizzying house of mirrors throughout the novel. "She had begun playing games, games inside of games inside of games," Julavits writes of Mary, yet the author could well be describing her own technique.
For the first half of the book, it is hard to reconcile the acid-tongued, sexually charged 1985-86 Mary with the numb, hollow Mary of 1999. Her story -- if there is a cohesive one, and at first we suspect there is not -- comes in fragments. In the hands of a less skilled writer, we might give up. But Julavits has woven these pieces expertly, with sure-footed intelligence, biting humor, bitter ironies and gorgeously timed dialogue, along with recurring phrases and motifs that work like incantations, echoing from section to section, character to character, gathering force and meaning.
Back in the house in which she grew up, the 1999 Mary feels invisible (she cannot even trigger the light detector in the driveway), but once she finds her first clue in her mother's desk and is forced outside the house on a hunt that will demand all of her resources, the girl and the woman begin to adhere. Often, and perhaps even forgivably, a novel as ambitious as this one cannot withstand the constraints of an ending, but even here Julavits does not falter. In an unexpected final turn, the two Marys and the three narrative threads entwine satisfyingly. And, as in all good quests, salvation lies not in what is finally found but in the wisdom, if not the truth, garnered along the way.
Lily King is the author of the novels The Pleasing Hour and The English Teacher.
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