A complexly wrought debut novel by Julia May Jonas, Vladimir is the story of an unnamed female professor whose husband is facing allegations of sexual harassment from his students when she develops an obsession with Vladimir, a promising writer in his own right, who has recently joined the department.
Vladimir forms part of a spring of recent American campus novels along with Lee Cole’s Groundskeeping and Elif Batuman’s Either/Or. The campus setting is alternately lampooned as a greenhouse for elitists and treated as a microcosm for wider society. At first, I was wary of the already well-trod subject matter, abuse of power in academic settings, campus debates over free speech, writer’s feelings of envy towards each other. But Vladimir’s morally ambiguous narrator is far from a cliché. She refuses to see herself as a victim of her husband’s actions, speaks dismissively of his accusers and act manipulatively towards Vladimir, playing on his vulnerability as a man with a troubled wife and a young child.
As an unreliable and, at times unlikeable, narrator she is incredibly well drawn. As the novel develops her ideas and behaviour become increasingly horrifying and last third of Vladimir was wild and unpredictable. Vladimir is complex and surprising debut and I highly recommend it for fans of Ottessa Moshfegh and Rachel Cusk.