‘A beautifully executed unsettling read’ – The Virgins by Pamela Erens
The Virgins is set on the campus of Auburn Academy, an elite co-educational boarding school on the East Coast of the United States based on Erens’s old school Phillips Exeter. In 1979 pupils Aviva Rossner and Seung Jung flaunted their seemingly passionate relationship in front of the whole school. One pupil in particular, our narrator Bruce Bennett-Jones, followed their love affair with a mixture of fascination and envy and he tells us their story with the benefit of adult hindsight, determined to piece together the truth at the centre of their affair.
The Virgins is an exploration of teenage obsession and fascination with sex and the path to adulthood, often through alcohol and drugs the use of which appears to be rampant. The focus of the story is the doomed love affair between Aviva and Seung and yet it is the outsider and villain of the piece, Bennett-Jones, who relates their story. He’s a pretty nasty character who’s obviously racist: when he first sees Aviva ‘It suddenly hits [him]. She’s one of those. I can see it in her dark eyes, the bump in her nose, her thick, dark, kinky hair.’ We also learn that him and Seung, whose parents are Korean and whose name is pronounced ‘like the past tense of sing’, attended middle school together where Bennett-Jones humiliated him calling him ‘chinky’ and ‘chinaboy’. Our narrator’s views don’t appear to have left him in adulthood as he makes no apology for being disgusted by the union which he refers to as a ‘mongrel relationship’, partially excused because ‘Aviva didn’t know any better because she was a Jew – vulgar, totally unschooled in Yankee discretion.’ In the end we have no choice but to despise him for it.
Erens’s choice of narrator makes for a strange and disturbing read and as I read the novel I questioned the whole time what Erens’s purpose had been in allowing us to witness this story through his eyes. It’s clear from the outset that we are seeing the events that happened that year as imagined by Bennett-Jones as he recalls it sometime in the now: ‘I’m inventing Seung, too, of course. It’s the least I can do for him.’ We already doubt his judgment and ability to pronounce on affairs of the heart and so we read questioning the veracity of everything he tells us. It is a strange experience indeed for the reader to feel as though actually in the mind of both Aviva and Seung as their relationship progresses from lengthy hours of intimate kissing, to their first, frustrated efforts at a fully sexual relationship, only to be pulled back sharply from the story as we realise that what we’ve witnessed is wholly in the mind of our narrator. Bennett-Jones claims that he’s ‘come to understand that telling someone’s story – telling it, I mean, with a purity of intention, in an attempt to get at that person’s real desires and sufferings – is at one and the same time an act of devotion and an expression of sadism’. By the climax of the novel we are given a glimpse into the real mind of Bennett-Jones, what his role in the story really is and the purpose of having him as our narrator and we are left disgusted and horrified, doubting that he has any real ‘purity of intention’ other than perhaps sadistically revelling in the part he has played. As evil characters go Bennett-Jones is a triumph.
Stretching the truth of the story further is the fact that it’s almost impossible to believe his account of their love story. At the very beginning, although claiming that Aviva is ‘Not my type’, her nose is too big and she wears ‘too much makeup’, it’s clear to us that he is obsessed by her. He goes as far as referring to her as ‘the great Auburn slut’ yet what he describes of her actions lead us to the opposite conclusion. His relationship with sexuality is skewed and unpleasant. When he takes her out one day to see the Academy boathouse, he’s a coxswain for the Academy’s crew, he’s confused by the signals that he imagines she’s sending out, asking himself ‘Is she teasing me?’. What follows reveals his character and his motivation for the whole story: he ‘yanks her sweater around to get at her bra’ which is an ‘odd bright purple colour’. He takes the ‘lacy patterns in the cup’ as a ‘signal that [he] is meant to continue’. His plans are thwarted however, when Aviva takes exception to his amorous advances, but has to fight to stop him eventually shoving him away with ‘unmistakable rage’ yelling at him that he is a ‘fucking motherfucker’. The fact that he approaches her again only minutes later, shows us his true nature and yet Erens asks us to believe he’s capable of imagining the tender, exquisite moments he reveals of not only Aviva and Seung’s relationship, but Aviva’s personal exploration of her own sexuality which are beautifully depicted. This dichotomy is for the reader both exasperating and compelling: we know Bennett-Jones is a nasty piece of work, yet the fact that he tells us this story, often with real lyricism and beauty, draws us towards him and into his dark imagined world.
Bennett-Jones gives us the sense that Aviva and Seung are separate from the rest of the school population; that they have knowledge of pure passion and love that the others don’t yet have access to; he tells us that ‘they give off something of the vibe of the long-together couple who are Getting It so often that they don’t need to show off’; that they are ‘bewitched’ and that this makes them outsiders. Bennett-Jones with his ancestry, his ‘pedigree’ which he tells us is better than any of the others due to his family’s ‘longevity in our town’ places himself firmly with the in crowd and yet the discrepancies and the fact that we are aware of Bennet-Jones as a voyeur, leads us to see him as the one who is truly apart and separate from the crowd, the would be lover who didn’t make the grade, the creepy monster hiding on the edges.
Any Cop?: The Virgins is a beautifully executed unsettling read with undercurrents of menace and violence that will keep you hooked until the last page.
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- January 30, 2014 / 7:59 am