Scheming psychics and hippies

"The Vanishers" and "Arcadia," two novels about troubled communities, are illuminated by gifted narrators

Published August 9, 2012 6:00PM (EDT)

This is the third installment of our new weekly audiobook column, The Listener. Every Thursday, Laura Miller or another top critic will recommend a great new title. The Listener is sponsored by Audible.

Custom dictates that the actor who narrates an audiobook be a rough demographic match for the main character: same gender, age and regional accent (if any). But what about the emotional tenor of the narration? Shouldn't that match as well? Too often it doesn't. The right fit is, of course, essential when the book in question is written in the first person, like Heidi Julavits' "The Vanishers," which has been masterfully performed by Xe Sands.

The novel is told by Julia Severn, a trainee psychic selected to be the assistant of a powerful, charismatic teacher at a school everyone calls simply the Workshop. Julia's unruly talents end up alienating her teacher. Then she falls seriously ill and must drop out of the program. Is she -- as is claimed by a pair of dubious characters who seek her help in finding a filmmaker known as "the Leni Riefenstahl of France" -- the victim of a psychic attack? Or is she suffering from the lasting effects of her mother's suicide?

"The Vanishers" is more about being sick than it is about being psychic. Pretty early on it becomes obvious that the Workshop is really a parody of university MFA programs, with their hero worship and insular competitiveness. As Julia struggles to recover her health, then visits a couple of European sanitariums, she enters the alternate reality of the ill, where recovery becomes its own type of rivalry. Meanwhile, she's getting weird emails with cryptic video attachments, receives visitations from a mysterious spirit and (rightly) suspects that most of the people offering to help her are pursuing covert agendas.

Sands gives Julia the bemused voice of a woman who's never fully immersed in her own experience. She's like a wry stranger who suddenly decides to tell you the outlandish story of her life. She does it with the bemused, self-effacing irony of someone who feels she doesn't quite own that life and may not succeed in holding on to it. This is largely a dysfunctional girl thing -- Julavits is particularly good, for example, in conveying how shrewdly Julia reads the aspirations of other young women by their wardrobes, clogs or scarves that serve a veritable glossary of semaphoric bids for identity. Her female characters are forever disavowing or cutting themselves off from their own power, then recasting themselves as the objects and victims of someone else's. Needless to say, there will be plenty of backstabbing and two-faced maneuvers before Julia gets to the bottom of her condition.

Sand's rendition of Julia was so deliciously pronounced in its flavor that at first I found Andrew Garman's narration of "Arcadia" by Lauren Groff a bit bland by comparison. This novel is told in the third person, but it hews closely to Bit Stone, a boy growing up in a commune in upstate New York during the 1970s. Bit is, as his nickname indicates, on the small side, a quiet, kind and mostly obedient boy who loves Arcadia. He regards it as a paradise, despite the depression that plagues his hippie mom and his unrequited love for the daughter of the community's musician founder.

Unlike "The Vanishers," a quirky, intensely personal story, "Arcadia" is epic. Its concerns are the American yearning for utopia and the unruly, perverse aspects of human nature that always seem to undermine that yearning. The last third or so of the novel describes Bit's life in New York City after Arcadia falls apart, and the last chapters take him into a near future constrained by resource shortages and a killer virus.

In time, I came to appreciate Garman's low-key approach to "Arcadia." It is, in its way, just as personal a performance as Sand's version of "The Vanishers," but the person through whom we view the action has to change tremendously over the course of decades. At the same time, that individual sensibility, with its yearning for togetherness and its less-acknowledged hankering after escape, must tie the entire novel together. I didn't care for Groff's rather antic debut novel, "The Monsters of Templeton," but "Arcadia" is an achievement of another, much greater order, mature, authentic and authoritative. It's not about voice, but about vision -- individual and social -- and Garman's calm, restrained performance is exactly what's needed to convey its scope.

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New to Audible? Listen to "The Vanishers" or "Arcadia" for free, or check out a sample.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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