IN HER SECOND NOVEL, The Virgins, Pamela Erens paints an arresting portrait of adolescent sexuality — at once beautiful, erotic, awkward, and shameful. With its racial tensions, vile narrator, and tragic climax, The Virgins reads like a prep school Othello, set to a soundtrack of Devo and Jethro Tull.
It’s 1979 and Aviva Rossner and Seung (“pronounced like the past tense of sing”) Jung are the most talked-about couple at Auburn Academy, an East Coast boarding school where students use sex and drugs as tickets to adulthood. To tell the couple’s story, Erens gives us Bruce Bennett-Jones, crew-rower and avid Frisbee-player, who comes from a long line of “landed gentry as far back as the 1700s.” Bruce is present for the arrival of Aviva, a fresh transfer student from Chicago. Dark “kinky” hair, dark eyes, bump in the nose: she’s one of those. Although he takes note of her silky purple dress with a slit far up the side, Bruce claims to initially feel “no attraction” to Aviva; he finds her “too Jewish-looking, too artificial, too naked in her wish to be appreciated.” But after a visit to a chocolate shop in town, where he splurges on a box containing “truffles lined up like oversized nipples,” Bruce changes his mind. Entranced, he can’t help but watch:
[T]he way [Aviva] moves the truffle around in her mouth, sucking it, one cheek and then the other bulging out. It’s vulgar; it’s charming. She runs her tongue across the front of her teeth to remove the brown liquid that clings there.
Turned on, he initiates some heavy petting back at the boathouse, taking her lacy bra as a signal he is “meant to continue,” even as she asks him to slow down, cool it, and then stop. Aviva shoves him in the face and calls him a “fucking motherfucker,” but it isn’t until she threatens to report him to the school’s disciplinary committee that Bruce gets the hint and actually stops.
A few days later, there’s a dance at the student center. Bruce hangs the lights, but tells us he “never” stays for the dances themselves; instead, he takes his girlfriend Lisa to a movie. So how does he know that Aviva “keeps Seung out on the floor for every song”? Or that “she’s never happier than when she’s dancing”? For a novel that so closely focuses on the intimate moments between two lovers, Erens’s choice of an imaginative voyeur for a narrator is an odd one, and while it doesn’t limit the storytelling, it certainly presents some problems for the reader. First, Bruce is a real slimeball, a preppy Iago in a sun visor. He is both attracted to and repulsed by Aviva and Seung, with whom Bruce went to middle school. Bruce remembers how “we pushed him up against the lockers and called him Chinky and Chinaboy” (Seung is Korean). At Auburn, Bruce and his bros criticize “mongrel relationships, Oriental and white.” To explain Aviva’s indiscretion (she touches Seung in public and allows herself to be touched), Bruce tells us she must not “know any better” since she’s a Jew — “vulgar, totally unschooled in Yankee discretion.” One would be inclined to forgive Bruce his juvenile racism were he not narrating from the present, where he exhibits neither self-awareness nor remorse. As a theater director, Bruce has spent his “adult life among people superlatively aware of how the angle of light in a room illuminate their faces,” while sitting in the shadows of his own bigotry.
Secondly, it’s easy to forget, and then bizarre to remember, that the most erotic scenes between Aviva and Seung have all sprung from Bruce’s imagination. In the omniscient present tense, Bruce transforms into a sensitive, knowing narrator:
Seung’s room is sunny and smells of fresh laundry. He puts Jean-Pierre Rampal on the turntable. He and Aviva kneel on the bed, moving their hands over skin, taking off their clothing piece by piece. Three hours of kissing is nothing to them. Nothing else calls them. The sun falls in the sky. They doze and wake. Again Seung touches Aviva into being: she is here, large, alive. Her good fortune is immense. Seung still cannot get over the deep hourglass of her body: the strenuous indentation at her waist and then the wide flare of the hips. The breasts spread out like huge coins. They are on the floor; she asks him to come inside her. More and more she wants to be done with this thing, this virginity, that keeps her from the ultimate pleasure, knowledge, and power.
As much as I relish these quiet scenes between the lovers (or almost lovers — as much as they try, Seung and Aviva can’t seem to fully consummate their desire) I questioned Bruce’s ability to conjure such rich moments. This is the guy, after all, who assaulted Aviva in the boathouse. When he takes the virginity of his girlfriend Lisa, the Emilia to his Iago, one Thanksgiving break, she bears Bruce like “a trooper.” Does Erens mean to show that Bruce is a better storyteller than bedmate? The Bruce she presents to us couldn’t possibly know about the intricacies of feminine pleasure, and yet Aviva’s tiny ecstasies are some of the most exquisite moments in the book.
On the bus to Boston, Aviva pretends to read Tess of the d’Urbervilles while privately enjoying the vibrations of the vinyl banquette beneath her legs. She daydreams a boy who is not Seung and “her breasts hum against the dense cloth of her oxford blouse.” It’s so simple, Aviva notices, “just to tighten gently inside the way she does when she wants to hold back her pee, channeling the shuddering of the moving bus.” When she finally climaxes, she pretends to stretch — “Ah, doesn’t reading on a bus make one feel tired and restless!”
Upon arriving in Boston with her girlfriends, Aviva finds a dark fedora with a purple feather at a store on Beacon Hill that she wants, but can’t really afford. She charges it to her father’s credit card, allowing “herself extravagances by denying herself other extravagances. […] The hat costs seventy dollars. On the street her limbs tingle, she breathes and speaks rapidly, excited by her purchase.” Drunk on Bacardi 151 from a bottle shop that sells to underage kids, the girls wander to a fair, where they buy elephant ears. Then they buy ice cream cones. Hypnotized, Aviva closes her eyes upon the first bite.
She sucks on the chunks of chocolate that remain in her mouth after the sweet cream dissolves. She takes another bite, and another, impatient to repeat the pleasure. She wants to feel sated, sick of it, for the pleasure to diminish, but it does not. She eats faster as if she might be able to overrun the pleasure and leave it behind. With a sudden spastic motion she flings the half-eaten cone into a garbage bin. Relief floods her.
Aviva fears her insatiable appetite for pleasure, at least in Bruce’s mind, and maybe a ravenous appetite is what they share in common. He’s also insatiable: for food, for sex, for telling stories that don’t belong to him.
Although Aviva and Seung are painted as outsiders at Auburn Academy, Bruce is the true permanent outsider, able to access pleasure and intimacy only through fantasy. And when his fantasies implicate him in the novel’s climax, I thought I finally understood Erens’s motivation for choosing Bruce to narrate this story: because the tragedy that befalls Seung and Aviva is his fault. By now fully formed as the novel’s “honest Iago,” Bruce delivers a lie so large that it ruins the reputation of one character, and the life of another. During the final chapters, I felt like an offstage Emilia, crying “Villainy, villainy, villainy!” (A modern woman, I actually wrote “yuck” in the margin.) But, unlike Iago, Bruce gets away with it. He is never exposed for what he has done, and doesn’t even acknowledge his role in what happened. Incredibly, he blames Aviva, “the great Auburn slut” whom he has defiled through word and deed. The slut is this novel’s richest character, and I was sorry she wasn’t more at the helm of her own story. As in Othello, the villain gets more lines than the hero(ine).