It starts with the cover photo: a male torso, shirt all the way open, hand lightly resting near crotch. Just the right amount of chest hair. The picture doesn’t include his face because really what it’s concerned with is the body. The book jacket is undeniably sexy, and maybe a little bit embarrassing to carry around or read on the T.
The book’s title is “Vladimir,” and it’s one of the year’s buzziest new novels, a debut by Julia May Jonas. Mark that name. She’s very, very good.
Set on the campus of a small liberal arts college in upstate New York, “Vladimir” is narrated by an English professor in her late fifties. She’s arch, wry, knowing, a bit vain (she has little rules with herself for staying at her ideal weight), and given to sharp observations about herself (“I’ve always felt the origin of anger in my vagina and am surprised it is not mentioned more in literature”) and others, from her students to her colleagues to her husband, chair of the English department. The husband, John (our narrator remains unnamed), has been sleeping with students for years, with the narrator’s knowledge and tacit approval (they have an arrangement), but the situation has proven untenable now that a petition has been signed by more than 300 people demanding he be fired.
“I find this post hoc prudery offensive,” our narrator proclaims, “as a fellow female.” The dalliances were consensual, she points out, the women of age. “I want to throw them all a Slut Walk and let them know that when they’re sad, it’s probably not because of the sex they had, and more because they spend too much time on the internet, wondering what people think of them.”
She is concerned about the changing social and sexual mores on the campus where she works. “Nowadays you must be so careful,” she says of the current generation of students. “People said this crop of youth was weak, but we knew differently,” she adds. “They brought us to their knees with their softness, their consistent demand for the consideration of their feelings….”
A professor swimming against the tide of a quickly changing culture is of course nothing new, nor is the campus novel. And if this conflict were all that concerned Jonas, “Vladimir” would perhaps fall flat. But John’s dalliances (or abuses of power) provide just one part of this richly plotted novel’s background; at the foreground is the newly arrived junior faculty member Vladimir Vladinski.
Although they typically operate these days as “more roommates than spouses,” the narrator and her husband invite Vladimir and his wife and child for a cookout by the pool soon after the family has moved to town. For John it’s an opportunity to get to know a new colleague, and maybe win him over in the upcoming deliberations about his future. For our narrator, the swimming party represents an opportunity to see Vladimir’s body (a previous meeting, over a book and a martini, had already set something in motion). Even before he strips off his shirt to reveal a hirsute chest, she’s pretty far gone. “Some fundamental peace within me, already disrupted since spring and the allegations and the petition . . . had been entirely capsized,” she thinks. “I was swimming in an ocean of electrical impulses. I was a body made of walking nerves.”
It doesn’t help that Vladimir’s wife didn’t show up to the party. Our narrator knows a bit about her, enough to already feel competitive about Cynthia, “with her credentials, her style, her ability to wear flat shoes and look graceful rather than stubby-legged, her what I assumed was effortless thinness, her buckets of potential, and her book deal based on her traumatic history that I knew a bit about from departmental rumors.”
Our narrator has published two novels but hasn’t written fiction in more than a decade. Her literary envy of both Vladimir and Cynthia is as powerful a force as the sexual attraction that sets in motion the events of the book’s plot. I won’t summarize any more of it — it’s too delicious to spoil. But it’s fair to say that “Vladimir” goes into such outrageous territory that my jaw literally dropped at moments while I was reading it. There’s a rare blend here of depth of character, mesmerizing prose, and fast-paced action.
The titular character’s name isn’t a total coincidence. It’s natural to think of Nabokov and Lolita while reading “Vladimir,” with its throbbing throughline of inappropriate lust and its terrible consequences. For while Vladimir is not a teenaged girl (he’s 40), he’s still the object of a mad desire that spins out in dangerous and even violent directions. Our narrator may be more sympathetic than Humbert Humbert (she’s not a pedophile, after all), but as the novel goes on it’s hard not to see some similarities. Anyone in the mood to read about campus politics, outrageous flirtations, moral quandaries, ill-conceived road trips, sexual adventures, and bad ideas in general will fall for “Vladimir.”
By Julia May Jonas
Avid Reader Press, 256 pages, $27
Kate Tuttle is a freelance writer and editor.
Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at email@example.com.