If you’ve been on TikTok over the past two years, you already know: the kids are into “dark academia.” In social media terms, it’s an aesthetic—think images of gothic architecture, dusty libraries, and vintage plaid, all tinged with a sense of wickedness. The hashtag has more than 1.7 billion views on the platform.
Real-life academia is plenty dark itself. Over the past few years, a series of scandals have rattled colleges across the U.S.: the Varsity Blues admissions scheme made sensational headlines, a white professor at George Washington University lied about being Black, and countless male educators have been outed as sexual predators.
It comes as no surprise, then, that two of this season’s thorniest novels take place on the fertile ground that is the college campus. The campus novel has long been a reader-favorite subgenre, one that captures the drama of self-contained, pressurized worlds. There was the murder of a student in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, published in 1992, and a freshman’s coming-of-age in Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, from 2017. But the disturbing goings-on at real elite institutions lend new poignance to stories set on campus. Julia May Jonas’ Vladimir and Elaine Hsieh Chou’s Disorientation explore in blistering detail the power imbalances that inevitably exist in academia—and their unsettling consequences.
In Vladimir, out Feb. 1, an unnamed 58-year-old English professor grapples with the difficulties of teaching at her university after her husband, the department chair, is brought under investigation for engaging in inappropriate relationships with students. The allegations are not surprising to the protagonist—they had an open marriage—but she never expected to be dragged into his mess. The department suggests she take a break from teaching, and her students brazenly advise her to get a divorce.
Vladimir is not a novel about a woman who sees herself as a victim, nor one about a woman trying to clear her husband’s name. Instead, Jonas dissects her narrator’s shifting perspectives on power and desire, which are complicated by the arrival of a young colleague. The protagonist becomes obsessed by her hot new co-worker—and as she grows closer with him, her behavior enters increasingly questionable territory. In darkly funny terms, Jonas creates a portrait of a narcissist reckoning with her age and vanity, but also the limits of her power. She’s certainly not one to root for, but that doesn’t make her observations on the impact of her husband’s actions any less astute.
Like the narrator of Vladimir, the protagonist of Chou’s searing satire Disorientation, coming March 22, is also dealing with the ramifications of a college scandal. Ingrid Yang is a 29-year-old Ph.D. student finishing up her dissertation on the (fictional) legendary Chinese American poet Xiao-Wen Chou. Ingrid was never actually interested in East Asian studies, but a white professor pushed her into it because of her Taiwanese American background. (After saying yes, she wonders: “Was it a coincidence that, a few weeks prior to this conversation, the East Asian Studies department had come under criticism for being ‘89% white, 9% Asian and 1% other’?”)
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When Ingrid makes a stunning discovery about Xiao-Wen Chou’s identity—one that upends everything scholars thought they know about the poet—she is forced to consider how she got to this place, and how much she’s allowed white men, like her racist professor and her Japan-obsessed fiancé, to set her path. Chou details her protagonist’s struggles with dry humor and wit, underlining everything about her life that is absurd, just as Ingrid herself is beginning to see it.
Both characters chafe against structural inequities on campuses built and run by a class of entitled men. But there’s something more basic at work here, too, something that these women—and the internet—understand at their core: the combination of knowledge, power and misbehavior makes for a titillating story. As Ingrid notes, “Academics universally adored one thing: academic scandals.”
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