The setting is a liberal arts college, though it could be a lot of places. The head of department is a big personality; he has been in the field forever, and his colleagues like him. If they’ve heard the stories about him and his students, they would rather not know the details. But one day a young woman makes a complaint. Then several more do. It’s more than him being a creep, as his colleagues first thought: The pattern of abuse stretches across years. There’s going to be an investigation. How could this have been going on so long? We need better procedures, everyone suddenly agrees, for handling such situations.
Or almost everyone. Because at some point in the unfolding of this familiar Me Too saga, a character I’ll call the Not Me woman appears, complaining that she can’t see why other women have to make such a fuss. She doesn’t accept the notion that their workplace disadvantages women. She herself does not feel disadvantaged. If you’re good enough at the job, you’ll make it. Sexual harassment? When she was coming up, they used to call that “experience.” She thinks young women need to toughen up. If they could just let go of their identity as victims, they might earn their seat at the table as she has.
Not Me arguments are far from unique to the academy. They thrive in newspaper opinion pages and in somewhat opportunistic books (see The Morning After by Katie Roiphe). But they can also be found in the work of some of the more urbane writers of the last century, who were reluctant to acknowledge sexism as a point of personal pride. Joan Didion scoffed at the idea of women as an “oppressed” class in her 1972 essay “The Women’s Movement,” calling feminists “Stalinist” and their grievances a “litany of trivia.” Her idea of success, she wrote a quarter-century later, was “the woman who sits down at the table with the men and, still in her apron, walks away with the chips.” There’s also an air of Not Me in Janet Malcolm’s 2001 essay “Justice to J.D. Salinger,” which calls Joyce Maynard’s decision to write about her relationship at 18 with the middle-aged Salinger “crass” and “vengeful.” In his history of the New York intellectuals, Partisans, David Laskin notes that Elizabeth Hardwick, Mary McCarthy, and Jean Stafford each ridiculed “women’s lib.” “Are women ‘the equal’ of men?” Hardwick asked in a review of The Second Sex. “This is an embarrassing subject.”
The unnamed narrator of Julia May Jonas’s novel Vladimir is a particularly slippery, psychologically complex version of the Not Me woman. From her perch as a tenured professor and sometime novelist, she heaps condescension on her institution’s reckoning with sexual harassment. The students’ complaints, she announces, leave her “depressed.” She wants to “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 even wishes she’d had the confidence to make overtures toward her teachers when she was younger.
She is not exactly an impartial voice on the matter. Her husband, John, is under investigation for sleeping with his students. She knew about—and encouraged—his adventures, and she has blurred lines in her own relationships. Her latest passion is for a junior colleague, the Vladimir of the title. On a deeper level, too, her loyalties lie with men: She has spent her life seeking their approval and learning to value the things they value. “When I was a child, I loved old men,” she declares, “and I still like the things old men tend to enjoy.” Her central conviction—that she is somehow above the difficulties that enmesh other women—is not uncommon. What’s fascinating is the moment-by-moment effort she puts into sustaining that belief, throughout both the grinding awkwardness of her husband’s downfall and the humbling experience of her own desires.
Vladimir is Jonas’s first novel. Jonas, who teaches theater at Skidmore College, is a playwright, and in the novel dramatic irony is her major mode. She allows the narrator—we will call her “the professor”—to monologue about her situation, holding forth with her opinions on the pending “trial” of her husband at the hands of his students as well as their colleagues. These passages read like a soliloquy in a tragedy: We see the character trying to sustain an all but untenable persona. Her speeches unfold with a taut logic but, under the strain of performance, they start to sound brittle and defensive.
Near the beginning of the novel, the professor explains that over his 28-year teaching career, John often slept with his students. He doesn’t deny this, so there are no cries of false accusation here. Instead, the professor complains that he is a victim of changing standards. Of all the incidents under investigation, she points out, “None, mind you, [were] in the past five years, after teacher/student relationships were explicitly banned.” For someone who advocates free thinking and transgression, the professor finds herself unusually insistent that everything that happened was within the rules—that is, within college codes of conduct and a narrow definition of consent. “At one point we would have called these affairs consensual, for they were, and were conducted with my tacit understanding that they were happening,” she says, though there’s slippage here too: Is she talking about the consent of the students, who were dependent on John for guidance (and grades), or her own consent to the arrangement? And if so much rests on her agreement, then why was it “tacit,” unspoken, or unspeakable?
The basis for their marriage, it turns out, is nothing so clear-cut as an agreement. The professor’s allegiance to her husband rests on a dense web of motivations, many of them barely related to sex or commitment. Early in the marriage, the professor herself saw other men. She also liked the version of her husband who could seduce other women; it made her see him through their desire. “I enjoyed the idea of his virility,” she reports, “and I enjoyed the space that his affairs gave me.” She didn’t feel her husband’s absence as a betrayal but as an allotment of time that she could devote to writing. After publishing one faintly praised novel and an ignored second book, she has endured “endless false starts, long projects of research that have been abandoned, mornings when I have woken up at five and prayed for an urgency of voice to come to me only to be completely disappointed.” During those years she did not feel the anguish of an abandoned wife but of a disappointed artist—the anguish of an author who keeps falling short no matter how much time or willpower she plugs into the task. It’s more convincing—if not more justifiable—that she stood by her husband’s actions because she was trying to put herself and her ambition first than because she believed he was in the right.
Vladimir is in large part concerned with the professor’s struggle to resurrect her writing career as she summons up the giant ego she suspects a successful writer needs. Her early work ran aground on her deference and timidity. “My work was simply not enough—not loud enough, not forceful enough, not realistic enough, not poetic enough, not funny enough, not speculative enough, not good enough,” she reflects, determined to find a renewed focus. In this she resembles the anxious, single-minded narrators of Sheila Heti’s Motherhood and Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, who both resolve to become “monsters” in the name of art. This behavior, Offill writes, comes easily to men, but “women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things.”
Yet while Offill and Heti write in autofictional, fragmented forms that try to reconcile daily uncertainty and artistic will, Jonas has written a thriller whose narrator banishes any traces of vulnerability from her persona. She introduces herself in the novel’s opening pages by listing the tastes she shares with “old men.” She likes “long, well-researched histories. Existentialists and muscular writers. Depravity, and funny, violent criminals.” The list goes on. She sets out with the attitude that she will simply choose not to be marginal; she will instead lay claim to the dominant culture. It’s a choice not unlike the one Hardwick and her cohort made, brushing aside feminism and choosing to consider themselves as good as equal with men. No embarrassing questions here, please.
Most enticingly for the professor, old men are allowed to have appetites. “They want to be stimulated. They want to sleep. They are guided by desire—their world is made up of their desires.” Yet the longing with which she describes this freedom may indicate that she hasn’t, in fact, found a way to access it herself. And she is more than aware that the world does not see her as the looming figure she feels herself to be. She confesses that she’s always surprised to see how small she looks, at 5-foot-3, standing next to her husband in photos, because in her mind they are the same height. It is not a straightforward recognition that she’s more vulnerable than she sometimes thinks but rather a resolution to compensate for any weakness with sheer mental toughness.
The professor might have been able to keep up her defenses, if on a warm evening in September she had not met the department’s newest hire. When Vladimir Vladinski stops by her house to introduce himself, she plays the part of the edgy older colleague, the host who enjoys making her guest uncomfortable in small and calculated ways. “They are suburban martinis,” she informs Vladimir as she mixes cocktails, as if drawing him into a scene from a John Updike novel with her. “Dirty, and wet, with lots of olive juice and vermouth.” When they inevitably talk about the scandal surrounding her husband, Vladimir delicately refers to John’s “multiple affairs with students.” She responds in a way designed to make him “wince”: “What silly wording…. He fucked their shining skin and their panties got wet from his approval.” Her ability to horrify him and yet keep him in her house eating “cheese and bread” and making small talk about “a play we had both seen in New York” gives her a predatory thrill, and as he leaves, she smokes a cigarette for the first time in many years and imagines him pulling her hair back with his “large, rough hands.”
The encounter gives her the chance to play the part of the “old man” who is “guided by desire” and to cast Vladimir as her young, impressionable prey. But as the novel unfolds, it’s unclear how much she enjoys this dynamic. For one thing, her crush on Vladimir leads her straight into the trap of comparing herself with his young and brilliant wife, Cynthia. Though Cynthia is enviable in many ways (she has Vladimir; she also has a prestigious book deal) and unenviable in others (she suffers suicidal depression; she is an adjunct), the main thing the professor notices about her that she is thin. She describes the well-conditioned musculature of Cynthia’s leg—with its “clear line running up the thigh separating the front muscles from the back”—with an obsessive eye for thinness, the sense that being thin is an ongoing competition that one woman is always losing to another, younger one. Later she begrudges a colleague’s “enviable long legs, which she would furl and unfurl excessively, like an anthropomorphized spider.” The professor nervously reminds herself that “all kinds and types of bodies…could spark arousal,” as if willing herself to believe it.
Desire becomes humiliation; even at its most titillating, it can be the most direct way to access a torrent of self-doubt. One moment she is sure that Vladimir is flirting with her; the next, she doesn’t know how to read him at all. “He behaved that way with everyone,” she thinks, like a lovesick teenager. Her fantasies soon fall flat. When she imagines consummating her passion for Vladimir, she finds that she is “repulsed by the idea of actual physical contact.” Even the affairs she had in her 20s and 30s are tinged with sadness and resentment. At a café on campus, she catches sight of a once “lean, compact” former lover who now looks like “the character-actor version of a tax accountant,” with “a little tonsure of short hair surrounding his shiny pate.”
One of the few disappointments of the novel is that it doesn’t follow this mix of attraction and disgust, defiance and shame, as far as it could. Jonas has a dramatist’s feel for conflict, stacking the first half of the novel with a series of tightly wound confrontations. Everyone the professor meets tries to get her to account for her husband: not just Vladimir but the students who once adored her and the ex-friends on faculty, who suggest it would be tidier for everyone if she’d just resign. But we never get into John’s Title IX hearing, and we never get to see the spark between the professor and Vladimir take on a life of its own. Instead, the plot takes a melodramatic turn away from the campus into a series of somewhat improbable (and highly spoilable) events.
Vladimir, with its background of allegation and investigation, could be called a Me Too novel; it could also belong to the smaller subgenre of fiction about the women behind well-known (often disgraced) men—novels like Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife, Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife (about Laura Bush) and Rodham (about a Hillary Clinton without Bill), and TV shows like The Good Wife. In these narratives, the simple act of making a middle-age woman the main character of her own life is considered empowering; the consolation prize for a lifetime of coming second and being ignored is to be accorded a degree of moral authority and, most important, attention.
But few stories consider the woman who might not want to be reclaimed or rediscovered. Few consider—as Vladimir does—how being slotted into the cultural role of the strong female lead is not that different from being slotted into any number of other prescribed gender roles. Or that an accomplished person with a developed set of tastes and interests, like the professor, might find the experience of having her identity redefined—usually by younger women whose cultural values she doesn’t share—nothing short of demeaning. In one of her classes, the professor’s students bring up her status as the wife of a man in disgrace and explain how she should handle herself. They expect her to emerge as a defiant, inspirational figure. “Like, you’re this hot, brilliant lady,” they assure her. “We think you’re really hot.” Her students need her to fit into a redemptive story, not for her sake but for theirs. “They prized their own opinion of my hotness, their ability to appreciate hotness in an older woman,” the professor notes, painfully aware of the thin line between being championed and being pitied.
In Vladimir, the professor does not want redemption, and Jonas resists giving it to her. There is no moment of epiphany when the heroine adopts palatable views on her husband’s Title IX investigation or shows real concern for his students. She remains a contrarian, whose unpopular opinions have become a last, desperate way to assert her individuality. The novel makes a rare attempt to take such a woman at her word and map out the contours of her inner life. There is room in Vladimir for her to be a frustrated artist, a faltering lover, and a woman making sense of the shadow that has engulfed her marriage. She can be sparkling and astute, obtuse and pitiless. She might be at her most brilliant when she is staking out her shakiest positions. But who said she had to be right?