By Sascha Feinburg New York City, New York
The Virgins, a 2013 novel by Pamela Erens, is the kind of book that demands to be read as quickly as possible. Perhaps I have misused the word “demand.” The experience was more subtle; I found myself being slyly coaxed into the world of the book until it became unputdownable. The more I read, the more I felt compelled to read it all—with the story of Bruce Bennett-Jones, Aviva Rossner, and Seung Jung feeling temporarily more real than my ‘real life.’ If it is not yet apparent, I thoroughly endorse reading The Virgins.
The novel, set primarily in 1979 at the fictional boarding school The Auburn Academy, is narrated by Bruce Bennett-Jones. Bennett-Jones seems the archetypal boarding school student of the time: white, male, wealthy, a beneficiary of nepotism. He is a verifiable insider, with all odds stacked in his favor; on paper, Bennett-Jones has it all. While his privilege is undeniable, however, he is not particularly popular, is riddled with insecurity and self-loathing, and eschews most sports for theatre.
The Virgins opens with Bennett-Jones and his two friends, Cort and Voss, inspecting (primarily female) students as they walk off the buses at the start of the school year. We are immediately keyed into the distinctly teenage voyeuristic observations of our narrator. Though Bruce is the voice, he is not our main focal point, but rather the lens through which we can view the two protagonists: Aviva Rossner and Seung Jung. These are our stars, and they are outsiders.
Aviva Rossner is new, a Jewish girl from Chicago who dresses outlandishly—or so Bruce thinks. He is immediately taken with her upon seeing her disembark the bus on the aforementioned day of inspection. Seung Jung is a Korean-American boy with whom Bruce went to middle school; Bruce is increasingly jealous of him. Aviva and Seung start dating, which fascinates the entire school. As their entanglement spirals towards a denouement in which Bruce plays a frightening role, we learn of their lives and their struggles, both concerning one another and not. Aviva and Seung, though riddled with human flaws, are distinctly likable. It is hard to say the same about Bruce. However, there is no denying that he is most fascinatingly concocted: at once deplorable and starkly recognizable.
The novel is cinematically written in short, palatable chapters, and the characters are drawn expertly. Perhaps the book’s most interesting element is Erens’s choice of narrator, who provides the uncertainty and unsettling feeling imbued in every page. The novel’s quality is what Freud would call “uncanny”: “all that arouses dread and creeping horror,” that is also “strangely familiar.” Bennett-Jones is “inventing” Aviva and Seung. He knows (or knew) them, knows parts of their lives, has access to hints and suggestions, and no more. Yet, he provides the readers with wholly believable, detailed accounts of their family lives, friendships, trips together, and inner struggles. (One scene, in which Aviva and Seung visit Aviva’s dad and his new girlfriend on Christmas day, stands out as particularly thrilling.) Bruce’s “inventing” is done so well that sometimes one forgets he is not an ‘omniscient narrator’ (he may be one of the most unreliable narrators in modern fiction). We learn less about him than we do about Seung and Aviva. Yet, the intimacies and—often ghastly—imaginations of Bruce that we as the reader are privy to force us to feel complicit in his involvement in Aviva and Seung’s doomed tale.
After finishing the novel, I found myself wanting to reread it immediately—not only to prolong my time in its world but also to gain insight into exactly how Erens crafted the tale, to think deeply about how and when key plot points and character traits were revealed. (I could go on—there is much, much more to say—but this is a recommendation, not a review. I fear I have already said too much of the book’s content, disrupting the blank slate experience the way even the most banal and timid of blurbs does.) Reading The Virgins is a uniquely captivating experience, one in which I unreservedly suggest you partake.