Power plays: Julia May Jonas addresses issues of on-campus sexual politics in her provocative and incendiary debut novel

Of all the locales affected by the post-MeToo reckoning around issues of sexual assault, perhaps none has been so seismically jolted as the university.

Not that post-secondary institutions had been immune to issues of sexual violence before that point. Departments of gender studies and women’s studies have long been at the forefront of activism opposing rape culture on campus and critiquing the old boys’ club that gives many powerful men cover for all manner of abuses and indiscretions. In Canada, sexual assault scandals at the University of British Columbia and Montreal’s Concordia University touched off firestorms of controversy about accountability in the literary community.

But it was the 2017 revelations regarding disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, bolstered by the grassroots #MeToo campaign on social media, that really started to move the needle on attitudes toward protecting men with status and credentials who used their positions to prey on women.

Inevitably, a backlash resulted among those who felt the needle had moved too far, too fast and was unfairly tarnishing the reputations of undeserving men. A generational divide emerged between third-wave feminists in the 1990s – whose sex-positive attitudes focused on young women’s sexual agency and autonomy – and a younger generation of fourth-wave feminists who chose to centre issues of power imbalance in regard to romantic relationships between older professors and their students. The days in which Philip Roth’s professor of desire, David Kepesh, might be seen as a comical roué rather than a serial predator were over, or at least were being seriously challenged.

Wading courageously into this social minefield is playwright Julia May Jonas, whose debut novel deals with not one but two cases of academic transgression in the sexual arena. In one corner, we have the novel’s unnamed narrator, a fifty-eight-year-old on the faculty at a second-tier college in New York state. Over the course of the novel, she becomes increasingly desirous of a new junior professor named Vladimir Vladinski, a twenty-five-year-old Russian émigré who we first encounter, on page two, bound to a second-hand “medieval-style” chair in a dishevelled cabin in the woods.

In the other corner is John, the narrator’s husband and chair of the college English department. John has been stripped of his teaching duties after seven former students complained that he had abused his power over the course of his teaching career by entering into sexual relationships with them. The affairs, all of which were consensual and with women who had reached the age of majority, ended five years previously, when the school enacted a policy forbidding fraternization between faculty and student bodies.

One thing Jonas cannot be accused of is attempting to play things safe. By placing the distaff half of this academic duo in the role of first-person narrator, the author challenges us right out of the gate to indulge a woman in late-middle-age who operates inside a modified version of an open marriage (she confesses to affairs of her own, though not with her students) and holds ideas about sexual congress that might appear outmoded in the current cultural climate. She is angry at the “post hoc prudery” of her husband’s accusers, who she feels are selling themselves out by casting themselves in the latter-day role of victims. “I wish they could see themselves not as leaves swirled around by the wind of a world that does not belong to them, but as powerful, sexual women interested in engaging in a bit of danger, a little bit of taboo, a little bit of fun.”

For the narrator, at least at the novel’s start, the issue of power is crucial, though not in the way the three hundred signatories to the petition calling for John’s ouster would have it. Instead of seeing her husband’s behaviour as a flagrant abuse of power, the narrator suggest that the proximity to power is precisely the thing that fuels the desire of the young women who approached him. (She asserts that the seductions were never initiated by her husband.) “Now my husband is abusing his power,” she fumes, ”never mind that power is the reason they desired him in the first place.”

How this power dynamic operates in the other direction – for a woman in her fifties lusting after a junior professor half her age whose recent success with his anti-realist debut novel serves only to remind her of her own stalled writing career – provides much of the dramatic momentum as Jonas’s novel unfolds. The narrator’s romantic trajectory with Vladimir is counterpointed by her increasing anger toward what she feels are unwarranted intrusions into her own life: her “annoying” and “irritating” pupils ambushing her to ask why she hasn’t filed for divorce from John and her colleagues demanding she take a voluntary suspension because her students feel uncomfortable being taught by the wife of an accused predator.

Unsurprisingly for a dramatist, Jonas’s facility with dialogue pushes much of this forward in a manner that is engaging without becoming overly didactic:

“We don’t think that the students should have the say about who comes and goes here,” David said quickly.

“Still,” Florence cut in, “we want them to feel heard. Some of the students have suffered sexual assault, and to be in the presence of a rapist’s wife –”

“My husband is not a rapist.”

“Maybe not according to you –”

“According to anyone.”

“He used his power and position to find women thirty years his junior to fuck.”

“And that’s still nowhere near rape.”

Unspoken here, of course, is the age-old problem of a woman being unfairly punished due to her association with a troublesome man. It is to the novel’s credit that this remains implied in the dialogue above.

What makes Jonas’s approach so bracing is her staunch refusal to instruct her reader on what position to take regarding any of the central characters. She presents her narrator as a classical liberal who is supportive of her own sexual freedom and that of her lesbian daughter, a lawyer dealing with a painful breakup who at one point also suggests her mother would be better off leaving her husband. An incipient friendship that develops between the narrator and Cynthia Tong, Vladimir’s wife, adds further layers of complexity to the moral and sexual stakes in the book.

On one level, Vladimir can be seen as the story of the narrator’s late-life sentimental education; the allusion to Flaubert is not incidental, since there is much of Emma Bovary present in the character. There is also clear literary resonance in the line, late in the novel, that sees the narrator refer to “my prey, my prize, my Vladimir.” If the invocation of Nabokov’s Lolita were not sufficiently apparent before this, the sly allusion seals the deal. As the narrative barrels forward to the discovery of how the handsome young junior prof ends up shackled to that chair in the rural cabin, then on to the incendiary climax, the reader is pulled along bodily by the force of Jonas’s storytelling and the alternating fury and frustration of the woman at the novel’s core.

In keeping with a narrator who finds an insistence on morality in art “highly offensive,” the novel offers up no prepackaged message or easily digestible lesson – at least for the most part. A retrospective reference to how “cruelly” Monica Lewinsky was treated seems incompatible with the narrator’s ideas about sexual women and power, and the final stages of the book force a fiery purgation on John and his wife that comes across as too easy in its symbolism.

By contrast, Vladimir is much stronger when it cleaves to the principles espoused by Cynthia when she writes “THIS IS A LIE” across a memoir assignment handed in by one of the narrator’s prize students. Vladimir is at its best when it remains intent on achieving emotional honesty with regard to its characters and their situations, notwithstanding any discomfort or unease doing so might cause.

Power plays: Julia May Jonas addresses issues of on-campus sexual politics in her provocative and incendiary debut novel
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