Pamela Erens’s The Virgins depicts the 1979 boarding school romance between Seung Jung and Aviva Rossner, considered to be the most sexually experienced—even exhibitionistic—couple on campus. As the narrator of the book, Bruce Bennett-Jones, says: “They are famous, they are the sexual and romantic templates for the rest of us” (252). The Virgins explores the relationship between Jung and Rossner from that voyeuristic point-of-view: Bennett-Jones both describes how the relationship appears from the outside, and re-imagines its interior.
The novel is written in pieces, with short, segmented chapters interspersed with much longer chapters. On the level of language, The Virgins is full of lyrical and surprising descriptions and insights. Erens effectively renders compelling teenagers who are simultaneously vexing and sympathetic. She captures the expectations, excitement, and shame of being young, in love, and sexually inexperienced—without sounding nostalgic or patronizing. She writes evocatively about the desire for something beyond ordinary experience; what Seung thinks of as “the inside”: “Only rarely does that inside reveal itself; mostly it teases him with transient glimmers of radiant energy in a field of grass, the panting of a dog, the mute mouth of a doorway” (91).
As interesting as sentences like these are, what most stands out about the book is the way it is narrated. The narrator, Bruce Bennett-Jones is, to say the least, an unreliable narrator—someone recreating a romance he observed but did not participate in. Augmenting the level of narrative discomfort, early in the book, Bennett-Jones tries to rape Aviva in a boathouse. Now, from a retrospective and supposedly penitent perspective, Barrett-Jones is telling her story, both through recall and imagination. As a character in the book, he acknowledges to himself: “I’ve imagined every part of her: her body, her thoughts, the conversations she has with her friends, with her brother and father and mother, the things she says to him, Seung, the books she reads and the fantasies that make her touch herself” (253).
The reader is aware of the ways that Barrett-Jones is carefully controlling and creating the narrative from the beginning, because he calls attention to it: “I am going to slow down the action now, relating this; I want to see it all again very clearly” (15). Early on, in a stand-alone chapter, he writes: “I’m inventing Seung, too, of course. It’s the least I can do for him” (24). One thing this narrative position affords the text is the understanding gained by retrospective distance, which works simultaneously with the prose that renders the immediacy and urgency of the time.
By positioning Barrett-Jones as the narrator, Erens also lends a profound unease to the entirety of The Virgins. Aviva is a character who “can’t bear the idea of being watched, studied for signs of grief and distress, or their absence” (268). That Barrett-Jones is the one controlling her story means the book has to be read, not as providing generous access into the vulnerability and mystery of a young couple in love, but more as though, as Barrett-Jones puts it, “Their mystery has been leached out of them” (240).
Of course, it is not as though this is some oblivious error on Erens’s part. Indeed, Barrett-Jones himself is aware of his problematic position in the story: “Over the years I’ve 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. You are the one moving the bodies around, putting words in their mouths, making them do what you need them to do. You insist, they submit” (61) By having Barrett-Jones tell the story, Erens is asking the reader to interrogate the idea of narration—and perhaps specifically, narration from white males, as Barrett-Jones takes control over a story that is really about Aviva, a Jewish woman, and Seung, a Korean-American man. It might be an achievement of the novel that even the most tender, lyrical moments between Seung and Aviva seem invasive when you think about who is compiling and telling them.
Barrett-Jones is a reprehensible enough villain that at times I wish the book could just be told from the perspective of a neutral observer, or an omniscient narrator—all of the lovely sentences with none of the culpability. However, in many ways that critique is a call for less complexity—and the narrative position Erens chooses, as well as her willingness to leave the reader feeling uncomfortable, undoubtedly add to the novel’s richness. The Virgins is challenging and beautiful, but it’s also searing and sometimes excruciating.
Pamela Erens's debut novel, The Understory, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in a variety of publications, including New England Review, Tin House, The Millions, The New York Times, and many more.
Michael Palmer is a nonfiction writer living in Lubbock, Texas. His work has appeared in The Georgetown Review, Wag's Revue, Dialogue, and other journals.