Monday, August 22, 2022

Vladimir by Julia May Jonas


Vladimir by Julia May Jonas. Avid Reader Press, New York, 2022. 238 pages. $27.00.

Book Review by Ed Meek

Julia May Jonas begins her novel toying with us as an updated version of a grown up Lolita when she claims that as a child, she “loved old men.” Now an adult, she has a colleague captive and tied to a chair. His name is Vladimir. To find out how this occurs and what she plans to do to Vladimir, we need to read two hundred pages. This is not a mystery though. It is more a comedy of manners, a sophisticated satire from the point of view of a feminist professor unafraid of transgressions in our politically correct age. Like Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon, Straight Man by Richard Russo, and Professor Romeo by Anne Bernays, Vladimir is set at a college with commentary on writing, sexuality and male and female roles.

Although the main character is a feminist, she remains caught up in our cultural biases about female beauty and is obsessed with how she looks. She is in an open marriage. Her husband had affairs with a number of his students years ago when such actions were neither against college policy nor illegal. Now, a handful of those women have come out publicly against him in the spirit of the me-too movement. As a result, his job is in jeopardy and his wife is put in a difficult position. Here she is confronted by a group of her young women students.

“Well, we just wanted to say, like, you don’t have to, like, do the whole supportive silent wife thing.”

I breathed in, white-hot anger rushing up my forearms into my elbows.

Then Tabitha, in her mechanic’s jumpsuit, worn unbuttoned to the waist so that her bra was visible, stepped forward…

“It is totally unfair what he has done to us.”

“You?” I asked.

“Us women,” she said.

Jonas is really good at capturing the complexity of these generational differences. She goes on to talk about how careful she has to be in answering their concerns. Professors today, unlike the good old days when there was a concept of academic freedom in operation on college campuses, have to be very careful not to offend their clients, the students. They wouldn’t want to trigger them or violate their safe spaces or use the wrong pronoun. If they want to keep their cushy positions, they need to keep the students in their seats. The narrator thanks the young women profusely for their support and admits that she too may be a victim of her own internalized sexism.

Her husband is suspended while his position is under review. There will be a hearing. The narrator is under pressure to step away from her teaching because of the optics. Meanwhile, the college has hired a handsome young, newly successful writer, Vladmir, whom the older narrator, (she is 57) finds herself drawn to. Vladimir nailed his interview with the college by confessing that his wife had recently attempted suicide. His genuine tears won the committee over. He does this even though his wife will be teaching part time at the college.

This kind of insider view is what makes Vladimir fun to read. The author, who teaches at Skidmore college, appears to be a number of years younger than her narrator and sometimes she misfires. When the narrator’s daughter shows up after a night of heavy drinking that ended with anonymous sex in a bus station, the narrator’s reaction is to drink with her. She doesn’t suggest her daughter get tested or go to the police. Isn’t that considered rape today?

And what starts out as a tease about a little bondage leading to sex, develops into kidnapping and drugging leading to a ridiculous over-the-top conclusion with no credibility. But this is a debut novel and most of it is very entertaining. It is often said that novels, which give us a feel for continuity, are difficult to end. We can safely assume that the talented Julia May Jonas will get better at endings in her forthcoming efforts.

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