August 9, 2007

Book review: "The Uses of Enchantment," by Heidi Julavits

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The Uses of Enchantment
By Heidi Julavits
Doubleday / ISBN: 978-0-385-51323-4

Okay, I admit it; that the subject of today's review was not scheduled to be read for another three or four books now in my queue list (i.e. the pile of library books and advanced reading copies at the foot of my bed), but was purposely moved up because of recently filing a very bad review here of Nell Freudenberger's The Dissident. And that's because, as a white male covering an industry dominated by white males, I'm sensitive to how insular such a situation can get; I'm well aware, for example, how few smart novels are published by female authors each year in the first place, leading me to only rarely reviewing female authors here, and so am even more sensitive than normal when one of those reviews turns out to be an intense pan, as was the case with The Dissident. I was anxious to find another novel quickly by a female author that I absolutely loved, so as to at least put a small dent in the usual sausagefest CCLaP's book reviews normally are.

The Uses of Enchantment, by Heidi Julavits

And as much as I hate writing bad reviews (and seriously, I hate writing bad reviews), I have to admit that I'm glad the situation inspired me to move up the delightfully twisted and surprisingly complex The Uses of Enchantment, the third and latest book by Heidi Julavits, a founding editor of fellow "we only say nice things" lit-crit magazine The Believer, itself an imprint of indie-press king McSweeney's. Almost as if exactly knowing what I was precisely looking for these days, the novel is not only a daring and thought-provoking story by a woman, but also about women, about a side of being a woman that men will never understand or experience themselves, a story that only a woman could tell in the first place. It's one of those rare finds, in fact -- a story containing almost no parallels to my own life, concerning instead subjects I rarely even think about, but which by the end turned into a gripping page-turner for me, an emotional mindf--k that will still be caught in your brain weeks after you finish.

In fact, even the setting of Enchantment couldn't be farther from my own life; it's a portrait of cultured, pill-popping, little-dog-owning, ice-cold matriarch families in New England, and of the various ways that various females within that environment interact, based on the relative ages and relationships to each other in life. Or more specifically, it's the story of Mary Vale, who in half of the story is a high-school student in the mid-1980s, the other half a woman near 30 who is looking back on those years at the turn of the millennium. And wow, what a harder, wiser girl this Mary is at the cusp of 30, because of the Jerry-Springeresque events that happened to her as a mousy teen in the mid-'80s; for Mary, you see, was abducted in the fall of that year, repeatedly sexually abused, then returned by her kidnappers six weeks later with almost no memory of what happened.

Or was she? Ah, see, that's the hook that gets you sucked into the story to begin with; that after reviewing her case in detail, Freudian therapist Karl Hammer determines that Mary has been lying about the entire thing, stealing parts of her story not only from the famous Freud case study Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, but also an obscure book about the Salem witch trials of the 1600s. (The story, in fact, takes place in West Salem, an important fact that plays heavily into the plot later.) Hammer in fact comes up with an entirely new psychological theory based on Mary's case, something he calls "hyper radiance" -- the need for many mousy New England teenage girls to fake abduction stories, as a way to cope with their budding sexuality in this repressed environment, which manifested itself as "demonic abduction" (or witchcraft) in the 1600s but in our modern times as literal abduction. And thus does he expose Mary's lies in a bestselling book, and suddenly becomes the new Joyce Brothers of that time.

Except wait, is that what really happened? Because a year later, see, one of Hammer's colleagues steps in, the humorless feminist and anti-Freudian Roz Biedelman, and charges that Mary's abduction and rape was real after all, that she was specifically using the "Dora" story (in which a teenage girl charged that she had been abducted as well, with Freud believing her to be hysterical instead) as a desperate cry for help from a precocious overeducated nerd, and with Hammer ignoring this cry for help because of being burned by a similar situation in the early '70s, details of which Mary also referenced in her real-fake-real story. Ah, but Biedelman's got an agenda just like everyone else in this book; she's a proponent of the then-new radical-feminist activity of "reclaiming" stories, believing that for centuries men have stolen the stories of women and have twisted them in order to fit their own agenda, claiming that abused women will never psychologically get better until "taking these stories back" and telling them the way they were meant to be told.

So. Here we are then at 1999, looking back at it all as Mary does, because of the death of her estranged mother, who never did forgive Mary for what she saw as dragging the good name of their matriarchal New England family through all that mud. And what did exactly happen, anyway? Well, I'll let you read the book to find that out; but needless to say that it's neither the option Hammer suggests nor Biedelman. And this is in fact the main theme of the entire novel, which like I said I found fascinating precisely because I've never given it much thought myself -- that for many teenage girls, understanding their newfound sexuality and finding their mature voice as a new adult is one and the same activity, and that things like concocting outrageous lies just to see if adults will believe them is the same thing as "tarting it up" in front of a middle-aged man just to see if you can get a rise out of him.

The key, in fact, I think is in this small passage found near the beginning of the book, or at least was the key for me as to understanding this deeply perplexing character and all the crazy things she does throughout Enchantment:

"Mary, who was neither pretty nor its opposite, learned at an early age that what beauty she might lay claim to was directly related to the occasional moods that possessed her as a child and as an adolescent, and which now rarely did; a sense that her body did not matter and her face did not matter, that when people looked at her they were struck by a light that radiated from inside of her and was so entrancing as to make her physical self irrelevant."

That small paragraph ultimately says everything you need to know about Mary to understand her as a character; that as a teen, she was one of those people who are like biological blank slates, who pick up and reflect the traits of the people who are around her at any given moment. That's what makes her story so interesting, and why her two very public betrayals in those years (first agreeing with Hammer that she had lied, then agreeing with Biedelman that she had lied about lying) so fascinating instead of scummy, even though one of the lies leads to a psychiatrist getting unfairly disbarred from his industry; because in the teenage Mary's eyes, she is simply agreeing to whatever it is that the people around her want her to be, for the sake of their own hidden agendas, which Julavits heavily intimates is how many such women in real life eventually also form their own sense of adult sexuality as well. And not only that, but the story of what really happened supports this as well -- that it is one of the first times in Mary's life that she's gone out and had an intense experience completely on her own terms, an experience she's not willing to share for fear of it being co-opted by others.

It's really intriguing the way that Julavits has built the plot here, because in a sense she both supports and rejects all the various theories about psychology that are on display -- she seems to be saying that there's a time and place for Freudianism, for radical feminism, for "reclaiming" one's stories even though there's something kind of BS-ey about the entire thing. But at the same time, especially in the scenes set in 1999, she also seems to be acknowledging that this is a very unique story about one particular person, and shouldn't be construed as any kind of "grand" message at all; after all, even Mary near the age of 30 is forced to admit that not every teenage girl goes around faking their own six-week abduction, then lying about what happened, then lying about the lying, then lying about the lying about the lying. And that the fact that she did has caused all kinds of deep psychological problems in her adult life, problems she has never confronted in all this time because of being estranged from her family all this time.

Such deep psychological events never happen to teenage boys, or at least when it comes to their budding sexualities; boys mostly deal with such a subject by desperately trying to rub their peckers against anything that moves, then going to bed after their 537th straight day of failure. And that, like I said, is what makes Enchantment especially fascinating to me; because let's face it, very rarely in my life have I ever deliberately sat around and thought about what complex psychological problems might occur with mousy repressed New England teenage girls when it comes to their flowering sense of adult sexuality. It's just not a subject that comes up in my life very much, you know? And this is why it's always so worth occasionally taking chances on books well outside your comfort level; because you never know when you'll be completely surprised by something you find inherently fascinating, even though you thought you'd find such a thing terminally uninteresting. That's certainly the case with me; it took me three notices of it at the library, in fact, before I finally checked it out on a whim, with like I said it still getting relegated to the bottom of my queue list until this recent experience with The Dissident.

And of course there's one other element of Enchantment that I am naturally fascinated by; Julavits in fact implies several times of how such urges and tendencies can eventually be harnessed by the adult woman in question, and turned into something positive by the woman becoming a...yeah, a novelist! And reading these little hints, of course, you of course can't help but to wonder how much of this story is Julavits' own; not the actual plotline, I mean, but rather how much of a struggle Julavits herself had as a teen over the subject of storytelling, sexuality, psychiatry and objectivity. Which of course is the most brilliant thing of all about the novel -- that she has now taken her own story and let me co-opt it into my own life, to twist and shape it in my head in whatever way fits my own agenda. This is the entire point Julavits is trying to make, not only of how easy it is sometimes to do such a thing, but how willing a lot of women are to voluntarily supply such a situation, and how when all is said and done it's the professional job as well of anyone who counts themselves as a storyteller. No matter how autobiographical or fictional, Julavits seems to be saying, the mere act of finishing a story is like the author pulling off a little piece of themselves, blowing it off the edge of their fingers and saying, "Okay, now you go find a life of your own." It's one of the things I love the most about novels, after all, and I'm impressed that Julavits is able to put it so eloquently and beautifully here. The Uses of Enchantment is a great book, a great book indeed, and one I highly recommend.

Out of 10:
Story: 9.8
Characters: 9.7
Style: 9.0
Overall: 9.6

Read even more about The Uses of Enchantment: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:27 AM, August 9, 2007. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |