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Morality in art, as considered by a fictional 50-something martini-drinking hostage taker

Julia May Jonas’s dreamy debut novel Vladimir arrives with its teeth out.

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The headless torso of a man wearing an open robe on the cover of the book “Vladimir” by Julia May Jonas.
Vladimir by Julia May Jonas.
Avid Reader Press
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

The first thing you notice about Vladimir, Julia May Jonas’s playful and provocative debut novel, is the cover. The titular Vladimir appears with his half-clad torso reclining Fabio-like against an anonymous background, head pointedly cropped out of frame. In this post-Me Too book, he is going to be the object of our gaze.

All throughout this dreamy novel, the narrator is watching Vladimir. In the opening pages, she’s watching him sleep. She confesses to us that “the sight of his arm hair, ablaze in the sun, sends a sob down my spine.” She has him shackled to the chair.

Vladimir is objectified in this novel in part because the narrator, who remains nameless, is not. She’s a woman in her late 50s, a respectable English professor at a New England liberal arts university who, although she observes a strict weight maintenance and grooming regime, considers it only natural that she has become invisible to men in middle age. It’s she who sets the agenda here, who tells us what her concerns are.

Things of which she disapproves feature strongly. They include her students’ concern over morality in art, which she considers prudish and boring; and the now widespread distaste for relationships between older male professors and their young female students, which she considers to be similarly prudish and, what’s more, infantilizing of the women.

The narrator is biased on this question. Her husband, also a professor, was recently accused of having a series of affairs with some of his young students — all consensual, the narrator notes defensively, and all before there were university policies against such things. “Now, however,” she tells us, “young women have apparently lost all agency in romantic entanglements.” A petition is circulating requesting his removal from the department, and the narrator takes it personally.

But a faint undercurrent of doubt runs through the narrators’ scorn. She seems to be plainly, palpably furious with her husband, in ways that don’t quite mesh with her intelligent, professorial defense of his actions. The resulting tension powers the narrative forward, and it gives Jonas space to play with one of the biggest questions of the post-Me Too moment: What, exactly, is and should be the relationship between morality and art?

“I believed that art was not a moral enterprise,” says the narrator staunchly. “Truth could be found only outside the confines of morality. Art needed to be taken and rejected on its own terms.”

After all, isn’t art about desire? Isn’t it about repressed urges, the human need for beauty, hedonism, aesthetic glory? Isn’t inflicting morality on those considerations boring and frankly a bit of a buzzkill?

But the narrator also has her doubts. “Were those all simply platitudes I had absorbed without question?” she wonders. “I felt more and more mixed up about it recently.”

Is it all right to unthinkingly indulge your desires without regard for the people on whom you are indulging them? And is it useful to bring these questions to art? That’s where Jonas is spending her time — but she’s having fun doing it.

Taking the narrator at her word, Vladimir is, for most of its run, lush and sensual. The narrators’ desires run deep, and we spend a lot of time exploring them.

On every page, the narrator craves martinis (“dirty, and wet, with lots of olive juice and vermouth”) and food (“dark black kale and designer anchovies and a nineteen-dollar brick of parmesan and olives and seeded crackers and an uncut boule of whole wheat sourdough and goat cheese and salami and raspberries and a flourless chocolate ganache torte”). She wants the respect of her students and the love of her daughter. She wants vengeance against her husband, who has humiliated her. And she wants, most especially, Vladimir.

A new hire in the English department, Vladimir is an experimental novelist. He flirts with everyone he meets as if by reflex; he told everyone during his job interview that his beautiful, brilliant wife, a memoirist, had tried to take her own life just months before. After their first private meeting, the narrator finds herself craving the cigarettes she gave up 20 years before. Vladimir becomes both the object of her fixation — and the tool of her vengeance against her husband.

The shackles from the opening scene might make you think all this is going somewhere extremely gory, but Jonas is too funny and too inventive a writer to follow the cliché of the repressed woman giving into blood lust. Vladimir indulges in the requisite Stephen King references, but this book is rich and dense with allusions, and Misery is far from the most interesting work Jonas is playing with here. More productive are the links to Rebecca, which informs Vladimir’s thriller-like plot, and Lolita, which informs practically everything else: the dark comedy, the occasional leaps into something close to surrealism, the web of references and misdirections. (Nabokov’s first name, as our narrator assuredly knows, was Vladimir.)

Together, all of the allusions swirl and spiral provocatively around and around Jonas’s central questions: How do we think about morality and art, how does art think about morality, how much should we care and how should we care? If a book is about romantic relationships built around vast disparities in power, do we take the book as endorsing that relationship? How do we decide? If we let the book off, are we being tricked into endorsing rape culture, thoughtless when it comes to the victims of real-life sex crimes, prurient, behind the times, cruel? And if we denounce it, are we being puritanical, joyless, childish verging on fascist in our treatment of art?

Since the Me Too movement exploded into public in 2017 with the downfall of Harvey Weinstein, novel after novel has tried to examine these questions, some with nuance (Asymmetry) and some with didactic glee (too many to name). Vladimir is in the first camp. It avoids the traps of glibness, stridency, or orthodoxy, choosing instead to play, question, and probe. And the ideas it pulls into the light will linger long after you read the final, haunting line.