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Sex, Lies and Infidelity on a Small College Campus

It’s bad enough that the narrator’s corner of academia is roiling. Her own college encounters with literature might have prompted a lifelong choice (“I didn’t want to be in the world, around all those people who didn’t read books”), but now those same 19th-century novels serve only as a vector for her students to complain about white privilege.

The bald fact is that “the students rule the roost” at this moment in academia, and while the narrator might once have felt deference to (and “overwhelming” lust for) her own long-ago professors, it’s clear who’s currently in the driver’s seat when it comes to morality, discipline and principle on a liberal college campus. That transition is itself “in conversation” with any conversation about Nabokov, or at least with his most famous novel. As the narrator puts it: “The reason I felt more and more like not teaching, was that I believed that art was not a moral enterprise. That morality in art was what happened when the church or the state got involved.” She is fatally out of sync with the times, alas.

Then, John’s transgressions and her own public nonresponse to them begin to trigger some of those same students. When a delegation of young women flatter our narrator as a “hot, brilliant lady” but suggest that her continued presence in the classroom is sending the wrong message — “We just wanted to say, like, you don’t, you don’t have to, like, do the whole supportive silent wife thing” — she is forced to respond with similar babble. “We all live and work within structures and institutions,” she tells her students. “I work, I live, inside of institutional sexism, racism and homo- or transphobia.” But when they leave her office at last, she calls them an unflattering name.

The arrival of Vladimir, gliding into this college town on a tenure track, with a noted publication and an unstable (and beautiful) writer-wife in tow, proves quite the distraction, and soon our protagonist is primping, exercising, mining his book for conversational fare and plotting an escapade that is either a seduction or a “Misery”-style abduction. Meanwhile, even with his dismissal hearing about to begin, her husband may be off on another ill-advised seduction, and their daughter is home amid a relationship conflagration of her own. And did I mention … conflagration? There are vanities, most assuredly, in this particular bonfire.

At the end of the day, these characters may suffer skewering as English professors, and they may suffer skewering as all-too-human lovers, but Jonas seems to take the most pleasure in tormenting them as writers. The narrator’s libidinous fantasies about Vladimir merge seamlessly with her literary ones (“I kept thinking about him and me on some panelists stage, at some book festival in some smaller city like Calgary or Austin or San Diego. Award winners, both of us, we would be put up at the same hotel and would meet for a martini in the dark of the bar”), and a suspected infidelity is infinitely more outrageous when it’s discovered that the characters in question are in fact writing together. (“You’re not the only one who writes,” one of them snaps.)

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