Book by PAMELA ERENS
The prep-school novel has never grabbed me. Maybe it’s because I’m a Californian who didn’t go to an exclusive New England boarding school or send my children to one. Maybe it’s because these novels (yes, you, A Separate Peace, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Prep, A Starboard Sea, and all the Harry Potter books, not to mention The Dead Poet’s Society, even though it’s a movie)—seem precious and predictable portraits of a cossetted (albeit often deadly) social niche.
The Virgins, however, is different. This elegant new novel by Pamela Erens (who attended Phillips Exeter) defies niche or genre. It is indeed set in an East Coast boarding school, and this setting plays a large role, but Erens does so many more interesting things than the usual exploration of class and teen angst, not least the creation of an utterly original female protagonist, the spiky, seductive, cringe-producing Aviva Rossner, whose aggressively Jewish name alone invokes a knowing frisson as soon as it appears. In the very next sentence, the narrator, another student, announces his name: Bruce Bennett-Jones. Erens has already subverted our expectations.We just don’t know it yet.
The action starts with a bang—or is it a whimper? It is 1979, and Bennett-Jones is scoping out new arrivals at Auburn Academy, hoping for an in with a pretty girl before someone else snaps her up. He offers to help Aviva—“silky purple dress, slit far up the side”—get her bags to her room. A door is closed against the rules; there is a kiss. And just like that, sex and its destructive counterpart, shame, are introduced into the novel. (Another, violence, will come later.) Look at the highly charged words Erens, whose prose is both economical and lush, chooses to describe the walk to Aviva’s dorm room: “One long heel sinks into the mud”; “the grass between the parking areas and the dormitories is soft and mucky”; “she laughs and pulls herself out”; “Her freed shoe makes a sucking sound”; “I push”; “the door grinding shut”; “damp and slippery. The kiss hasn’t even happened yet. Sex before there’s actual sex. That’s what The Virgins is all about. Maybe.
Bennett-Jones doesn’t snare Aviva—the whimper is his. The lucky guy is a Korean-American student named Seung Jung from the same New Jersey town. “Even back in middle school, when we pushed him up against lockers and called him Chinky and Chinaboy, there were girls who liked him,” says Bennett-Jones. Aviva is a voracious, aggressive, smart, insecure, unfulfilled, and very young girl, unappreciated by her successful parents, whose marriage disintegrates over the course of the novel. Seung is a varsity athlete, proctor, and stoner, the easy-going second son of a traditional Korean family.
Erens introduces their pairing in her matter-of-fact, yet vividly sexual way. “One day she was simply there, Aviva, on the couch in our common room, sitting on his legs.”
Sex and secrecy play a big role in prep-school novels, but there is nothing secretive about Aviva and Seung’s desire, and this will be their downfall. “Even the teachers talked about them,” Bennett-Jones reports. “There were plenty of couples on campus about whom it was understood that they did all the things that married couples do, but the etiquette to which they adhered to, always, was dissimulation. In public, they were dignified, clean.” These sentiments tell us as much about Bennett-Jones—that shocking word, clean—as they do about Aviva and Seung or even the school. But it is true that this flaunting of sexual desire and exploration does eventually turn the adults at Auburn against the heedless couple—in Seung’s case, to the point of expulsion.
The irony—and here’s the spoiler alert—is that their relationship is not what it seems. Their inability to consummate their relationship–and emotional immaturity, which leaves them incapable of coping with a problem that would trouble an adult couple–drive them to desperation and the book to its tragic denouement. This is what makes The Virgins so much more subtle psychologically than others of its genre.
Bennett-Jones is the observer, the reporter of Aviva and Seung’s relationship. All we know about the two of them comes from him, but it quickly becomes clear that he cannot possibly know much of what he is telling us. Erens herself has mentioned James Salter’s novel A Sport and a Pastime as a major influence. (In homage, she names the novel’s English teacher Mr. Salter.) She was clearly inspired by Salter’s first-person yet third-party narrator of a sexual tale he couldn’t have fully witnessed. Erens has Bennett-Jones say–this explanation is the whole of one short chapter–“I’m inventing Seung, too, of course. It’s the least I can do for him.” There is something Nabokovian about Bennett-Jones, who, though telling the story from an adult perspective many years later, doesn’t quite understand how unattractive, how obsessive a picture he’s painting of himself. He is still harping on the fact that his is an old, long-established family in his New Jersey suburb, but it seems unlikely that anyone there or at Auburn cared much. In fact, the reader gets the uneasy feeling that he was the one calling Seung “Chinky” back in middle school.
All three characters are nuanced and richly developed in some ways, fragmentary in others. Do Aviva and Seung love each other? Neither seems to know, nor does it matter much to the story. What is that story? The title implies sexual awakening or perhaps frustration. The sexually frustrated, jealous narrator with a double-barreled name and the enviably erotic Jewish and Asian-American lovers suggest a sly inversion of insiders and outsiders. Growing up? The Virgins is about all of the above, of course, and bigger themes as well. The novel speaks of both the literal unknowability of others, and the extraordinary possibilities of intuition. Even though Bennett-Jones can’t possibly know much of what he describes, we believe he’s right, somehow.
The Virgins reminded me how gratifying it is to fall into a good novel—one that feeds the senses and makes us think.Take this incandescent passage:
He can see the suffering of each fellow creature like a brilliant steam rising from the pores, a nimbus terrible and exquisite at once. It’s the suffering that makes each person beautiful, like a bracelet, a cage. He has enormous compassion for everyone, and the fact that the suffering will continue, that he can do nothing about it, does not unduly distress him. This is simply how things must be.
It is at these times that Seung sees, in the hollow of his palm or hiding in a stand of trees, the things that later he must make—the drawing of leopards with golden eyes, the perfect spheres carved out of wood.
A sentence or two later, Erens slyly reminds us that this golden eloquence is merely stoner Seung’s attempt, (unsuccessful) to persuade Aviva to try Quaaludes with him. No, wait, it’s Bennett-Jones imagining Seung talking. Or did Seung make this speech to him at another time? Did this particular scene with Aviva ever happen? Whose eloquence and beauty is it?
Another striking passage reminded me of the way Jane Austen nails a self-righteous character’s justification for doing something nasty. Watch a teacher quickly abandon his initial leniency towards a lapse of attention in class:
Aviva Rossner is a smart girl, one of his best students in fact, a strong writer, turns in her assignments on time. She makes thoughtful comments in class. She’s sufficiently well mannered. Still, lately, she’s been slipping away. You see this begin to happen with some kids—there’s something on their minds, some family business or internal storm, and before you know it they’re gone entirely, intellectually speaking, and sometimes they can’t come back. They stop seeing why they should. And truth be told there’s an arrogance about Aviva Rossner that he’s never liked, a sense she conveys of following the rules only because they suit her. Furthermore, she’s too sexy, with her snug sweaters, her dangling jewelry. She distracts him.
He gives her an extra paper to write, and when her expression becomes “sullen, inward,” he feels gratified. He was right all along.
Erens does have a clunky moment or two, such as that self-conscious micro-chapter about “inventing Seung,” and her reiterations that Aviva wears a lot of makeup and checks mirrors obsessively because she’s afraid of going unnoticed. But these small stylistic bumps hardly matter.
Which brings me to my biggest regret about The Virgins. Erens strays from so many boarding-school novel conventions, I wish she had avoided the one that says a student must die. (Note to the spoiler police: Erens reveals this overtly by page 60 and hints at it earlier). In fact, it’s a wonder anyone well-versed in the prep-school novel genre would ever consider boarding school. The mortality rate seems far too high.
In Erens’ novel, it is Seung who is sacrificed (the sacrificial virgin, although by that point, he isn’t technically a virgin). For Bennett-Jones, Seung Jung’s death changes everything, because he sees himself as complicit. And isn’t this another prep school cliché—the lifelong guilt for the classmate’s death? I couldn’t help but wonder what difference it would have made to the novel if Seung hadn’t died. That might have changed surprisingly little in Eren’s rich, thought-provoking, and hard-to-categorize book.
Either way, Aviva is the one whose future I wanted to follow. In one gorgeous tableau early on, Aviva “climbs on top of Seung, straddles him, bends down to kiss him deeply, then straightens and withholds herself from him. He reaches up and makes a breastplate for her with his palms.” I wish Aviva could have ridden off, fortified by the memory and feel of that breastplate, but it’s hard to imagine things going that way for her, in 1979 or today.
Deborah Michel is a former magazine writer and editor whose first novel, Prosper in Love, came out last year. She lives in the Bay Area and is at work on a new novel.