The Virgins by Pamela Erens

The Virgins: A Novel BY Pamela Erens. Tin House Books. Paperback, 288 pages. $15.
The cover of The Virgins: A Novel

The Virgins, Pamela Erens’s subtle, accomplished second novel, is set at Auburn Academy, a New Hampshire boarding school. The book begins in the fall of 1979 and covers a single academic year in the lives of Aviva Rossner and Seung (“pronounced like the past tense of sing”) Jung, doomed lovers, reckless exhibitionists, exotic standouts in their starchy WASP surroundings. Aviva, with her gold jewelry, cowboy boots, and pretty face full of provocative makeup, and Seung, a champion swimmer and inveterate pot smoker, quickly become objects of school fascination: “even the teachers talked about them.” Only a few years before, neither would have been welcome at an august place like Auburn: not Aviva, a Jewish girl from Chicago, nor Seung, the son of Korean immigrants living in Jordan, New Jersey. But when The Virgins begins, they seem enough at home to stage their love all over campus.

Observing the couple is classmate Bruce Bennett-Jones. Seemingly obsessed with Aviva, Bruce, the son of a powerful judge, jealously studies her and Seung, imagining their interactions and their intimacies. His resentment is at first glance rooted in sexual competitiveness: he supposes that Aviva could and would be his, were it not for Seung. And, we assume, because he cannot bear to be without Aviva, Bruce is determined see her and Seung’s paradise destroyed.

Narrated by Bruce years after the events in question took place, the novel opens as Aviva arrives at Auburn and Bruce offers to help bring her bags to her room. There, he kisses her, and she humiliates him by asking him not to open his mouth so wide. He flees, telling himself that he finds her “too: too Jewish-looking, too artificial, too naked in her wish to be appreciated.” The next time they meet, he tries to rape her, and her confident repelling of his advances marks “the first time” he knows he has “truly blown something,” a strange, unwelcome feeling for a guy who, until then, is “used to thinking I have more than one chance at things, many chances, in fact.” That Aviva winds up with Seung, whom Bruce knew in middle school, and whom he remembers “push[ing] up against the lockers and call[ing] Chinky and Chinaboy,” enrages him.

Bruce is not the most reliable narrator—he makes clear that in telling the couple’s story, he is “the one moving the bodies around, putting words in their mouths, making them do what you need them to do”—but the couple’s Eden is also not what it seems. Though they appear to be caught up in the heady joys of freedom, Aviva and Seung never fully escape their painful roots. Aviva remains the neglected daughter of warring parents; Seung the second-born son of a family that pressures him to excel while expecting to be disappointed. And despite their displays of sexual indulgence, Aviva and Seung never manage to consummate their relationship. We anticipate catastrophe, and not only because Bruce tells us early on that Seung has long been dead and Aviva has been living with terrible guilt. I won’t spoil the particulars of the death, but suffice it to say that Bruce’s involvement in the couple’s tragedy is what inspires him to produce his account.

And yet The Virgins is no mere confession, for Bruce’s motivations are more complicated than they seem. As he notes, the attempt to get at another’s “real desires and sufferings… is at one and the same time an act of devotion and an expression of sadism.” At first glance, Bruce is an adolescent Iago, exploiting sexual jealousy in order to avenge himself for perceived slights. As his story progresses, however, it becomes clear that a more apt parallel is the Satan of Paradise Lost, who, though he hates Adam and Eve, cannot help but admire their newness and guiltlessness and faith. Aviva and Seung’s arrival at Auburn fascinates Bruce, but it also signals a threatening loss of privilege: where his pedigree once mattered, it no longer means much.

Martin Scorsese famously deemed The Age of Innocence the most violent of his films, and a similar sort of violence animates The Virgins: it is ultimately a novel about the terrible damage people inflict on each other when they stand together at the edge of social upheaval. The irony at the heart of _The Virgins is that despite circling around something new, its characters remain bound to the past: Aviva and Seung never escape their personal demons, and Bruce remains in thrall to a hierarchy that no longer pertains. Social transformation is simultaneously too slow and too fast: some never quite find paradise, others keenly feels its loss. Captured on the cusp of innocence’s destruction, “the virgins” are also martyrs, caught up in and sacrificed to the illusory joy of acting like men and women free of the old orders.

Yevgeniya Traps lives in Brooklyn. She teaches at NYU Gallatin and at Barnard.