Vladimir by Julia May Jonas is a novel with, as is increasingly prevalent in modern literary fiction, an “unlikable female narrator.” But her unlikability stems from her refusal to sugarcoat the realities of aging and its attendant loss of power.
Although on the surface (and in the copy on the back cover), the novel purports to deal with the fallout after John, a university professor at a liberal arts college, is accused of having conducted inappropriate relationships with multiple students, I was less interested in this idea than in all the other questions the book raises. Perhaps that’s because John’s wife, the nameless protagonist and narrator of the story, seems uninterested in the allegations brought against her husband. She refers to them principally through conversations had with her by other faculty members who seem to require a comment from her, to whom she explains wearily that all the women in question were over the age of consent at the time of the incidents. She clarifies that her husband did not initiate any of the relationships, and that the women, all of them consenting adults, had autonomy over their decisions; her husband was simply a willing participant.
She seems primarily concerned with the ways the allegations reflect on her. Not wanting to embody the stereotypical scorned wife, we learn through her internal monologue that she and her husband have had a tacit agreement for years about the acceptance of extra-marital affairs, an arrangement which benefits her as well as John. The protagonist herself suggested the arrangement, feeling after their marriage that she had “hoodwinked” him into being with her, perhaps wanting to suggest a consensual open relationship rather than being caught unawares by John’s historically caddish ways. But she also luxuriated in the sense of freedom that John’s wandering eye afforded her: “I enjoyed the space that his affairs gave me… What did I want with a husband who wanted my attention?” And she engaged in an extramarital dalliance of her own with another university professor, David. When a group of young female undergrads approach her during office hours to lambast her husband and demand she condemn him publicly, although outwardly she smiles and commends their feminist idealism, her thoughts tell us just how idiotic she considers them to be. On the outside, she is the campus’s favorite teacher, fawned over by her students, but inside her head, she sees them as “awful. They get too much bravery from each other, they forget to behave well.”
The obsession with outward appearance, and the power it affords us, is the crux of the novel. Each of the characters the protagonist encounters, whether a key cast member or a passing extra, is described in excruciating physical detail, with accompanying commentary on what their appearance tells us about what kind of person they are. A loathed colleague is described as wearing a “uniform” that is “aggressively ‘hot’: short dresses, high-heeled boots, big earrings,” while her former lover David is “fifty pounds overweight and dissipated.” Even the protagonist’s daughter is not spared her lacerating appraisal—“Sidney looked awful. Her eyes were bloodshot and her skin was a greenish-gray and there was a pimple on each side of her mouth.” That Sidney appears to have let herself go is, to her mother, much more of a cause for concern than her apparent breakup and her having moved back home with her parents for an indeterminate amount of time. It stands to reason, then, that the protagonist herself is utterly, and constantly, preoccupied with her own appearance.
Although the concept of aging, of looking at yourself in the mirror and not being able to reconcile what you see with who you used to be, is addressed in other works of fiction, nowhere is it discussed with such brutality and apparent disgust as in Vladimir. The narrator does nothing to disguise her horror at her aging body, whose natural march through middle-age she tries to slow at every opportunity. Jonas’ corrosive descriptions make for uncomfortable reading, as she writes of “the blandness of [her] face, obscured by flesh and bloat, and the squatness of [her] body,” but the author is fearless in depicting the protagonist’s self-hatred, a self-hatred we can all recognise as having felt at one time or another. What is most interesting about the protagonist’s preoccupation with her appearance is that it seems to have nothing to do with appearing attractive to anyone else. Her obsession has been lifelong and doesn’t seem to have been triggered by an encounter with one particular person. It is not the arrival of Vladimir, an author hired to teach at the university, that kickstarts her image woes—they just ramp up another notch.
Thus the protagonist fixates, predictably, on Vladimir’s wife, Cynthia, a young professor also recently arrived on campus. She’s effortlessly thin and effortlessly chic—effortless in general. When Cynthia confides in the protagonist that she recently tried to commit suicide and doesn’t appear to be recovered or interested in becoming so, our narrator’s fascination in her only doubles. Her jealousy does not diminish, though; on the contrary, Cynthia’s suicide attempt is something the protagonist appears to covet, perhaps recalling a time in her own life where her feelings could grow to such an intensity that she might have attempted such an act herself. A time when her life was dramatic, and aesthetic, and exciting. The protagonist’s preoccupation with seducing Vladimir can easily be read as an attempt to take something from Cynthia, who represents everything the protagonist herself has lost, through nothing but the natural and unavoidable process of growing older.
But perhaps the most interesting facet of the novel is the question of what happens when you get what you want—when you finally manage to capture the object of your affection, and they crystallize into a real, and inevitably disappointing, human being. The vast majority of the first part of the novel is occupied with the protagonist obsessing over Vladimir, prodding and plucking at herself in an effort to make herself more attractive to him, and plotting how to seduce him. The evident pleasure the protagonist takes in these preparations—hair removal, ill-advised spray tanning, ineffective skin-tightening treatments, the purchasing of various expensive and luxurious foodstuffs, even writing a manifesto on all the parts she admired about Vladimir’s novel to deliver to him over lunch—is reminiscent to me of the manner in which, in many ways, getting ready for a date is more exciting than the real thing. Taking photos of various outfit options and sending them to your friends to receive their compliments, lathering your skin in scented lotion, dithering about which perfume to wear, blasting music while you pluck your eyebrows… all of these things are (usually) much more enjoyable than the date itself, during which the other participant will reveal themselves to be too short, or too tall, or the owner of an unsuccessful and poorly designed startup, or wearing awful shoes. But having spent hours on your appearance, or prepping conversation topics, you can at least enjoy the date in the knowledge that you are superior to the other person, that they will ask you for a second date, which you will magnanimously decline.
As the hearing against her husband begins, and the protagonist’s own position at the university is called into question, she focuses with alacrity on her goal of seducing Vladimir. After a couple of casual encounters on campus, she invites him to a restaurant near her cabin, outside the university grounds. She gets him drunk over lunch and then suggests they visit her cabin, to which he sluggishly agrees. At the cabin, she fixes him yet another drink and adds a sedative, not confident enough in her own powers of seduction to make a move on him while he is fully conscious. But once Vladimir is in her clutches, drugged and zip-tied to a chair, her plaything becomes a disappointment. His conversation is suddenly not so sparkling; his breath is bad. He is no longer a fantasy, but a real person, and thus all the excitement, all the projections she had put on him are gone. He cannot possibly live up to the deified version of himself that the protagonist had created in her head, and she loses interest. Once he comes round from his drug-induced coma and does not run screaming from the cabin she has sequestered him in, but instead stays, domestically making coffee and smoking her cigarettes, the protagonist wants nothing more than for him to leave. Now that the hunt is complete, and there is nothing left to pursue, she loses interest.
While the novel’s conclusion is swift and perhaps leans toward melodrama, it still manages to implant feelings that are hard to shake. As the years pass, the number of times women will be able to enter a room and command its attention, the number of heads that will turn towards us in awe, will decline. But when the denouement of the novel comes and the protagonist has lost control over the body she has so cosseted over the years, she finally learns to appreciate it for what it is.
MEGAN JONES is a writer living in London, United Kingdom. Her work has been featured in Polyester Zine, Riposte Magazine, and Rogue Collective. She also publishes a weekly newsletter at onegoodonebad.substack.com.