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Heidi Julavits

The Uses of Enchantment

It’s late fall in the Boston suburb of West Salem. There’s snow and cloud cover and so it’s hard to say what time of day it is exactly. Two teams of girls playing field hockey shiver on their respective sidelines, waiting for school officials, as they inevitably will, to call the game and let them go home. Just before that happens, though, one of the girls slips off, allegedly to go to the bathroom. Instead she makes her way to the parking lot, where she taps her hockey stick on the glass window of a car idling there.

A man with long hair who smelled of “old cigarette smoke and damp carpets” peers at her from behind her newspaper. The girl doesn’t know the man, but she’s made it a habit -- as her team walks past every day onto the field for games or practice -- to bend at the appropriate times, or sashay her hips when walking past, all for his pleasure, or at least for his seductively strange interest. Now, she wants him to give her a ride home. The man responds with “cautious politeness, which she read as bewildered gratitude to some unspecified higher power that this girl should walk into a trap he had yet to even set.”

“I’ll drive you home,” he says, unlocking the passenger-side door. The girl scuttles around the side of the car, through the snow-patterned beams of light coming from the car’s headlamps. She gets in -- but not before “dropping her field hockey stick into the gutter where it would be recovered and remarked upon by journalists and police, family, friends, teachers.” And away she goes, off with the strange man, all the while feeling “an electrical charge,” feeling “her body…on fire,” fancying herself “a disappearing woman, her eyes a blank white stare.”

So unfold the opening passages of Heidi Julavits’ newest, The Uses of Enchantment. Julavits is a founding editor of The Believer magazine in San Francisco and the author of two other novels, including the extraordinary surrealist-spun narrative The Effects of Living Backwards. Julavits writes with a punchy, straightforward zip -- just as she did in her essay entitled “Rejoice! Believe! Be Strong and Read Hard!” decrying the loss of vibrant book culture in America, and as she does generally, calling the monthly she co-steers (The Believer) a magazine which eschews “snarkiness” and which tries to “give people and books the benefit of the doubt.”

Julavits has dipped her fingers -- or her pen -- in these inky waters before. She plies the currents on the borders of fiction and fact again in this work, basing the book loosely on Freud’s famous "Dora" case in which he tries to tie a girl’s hysterical outbreak to her jealousy of her father. The "Dora" case, detailed in Philip Reiff’s work “Introduction to Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria", is an instance, says Julavits in an interview with Bookslut.com, that “reads like a roman a clef, thereby displaying Freud’s literary talents,” but also displaying “his flaws as a scientist.”

In Julavits’ novel, Mary Veal fakes her abduction on November 7, 1985…or does she? Twisting us into the nexus where a young woman’s sexuality and her ability and desire to use it weave together, Julavits leads us masterfully along a blurry coastline between the real and the perceived. There we see not only Veal’s sly and inevitable slide into dishonesty and self-justifying truths, but we also, perhaps, see the inner workings of our own contradictory and not-always-certain-what-we-want souls.

Heidi Julavits will be reading at The Booksmith, Jan 25th, 7pm.