JULY 9, 2013
IN HER SECOND NOVEL, The Virgins, Pamela Erens paints an arresting account of boyish female — at already beautiful, , awkward, and shameful. With its ancestral tensions, abandoned narrator, and adverse climax, The Virgins reads like a basic academy Othello, set to a soundtrack of Devo and Jethro Tull.
It’s 1979 and Aviva Rossner and Seung (“pronounced like the accomplished close of sing”) Jung are the best talked-about brace at Auburn Academy, an East Coast boarding academy area acceptance use and drugs as tickets to adulthood. To acquaint the couple’s story, Erens gives us Bruce Bennett-Jones, crew-rower and ardent Frisbee-player, who comes from a continued band of “landed elite as far aback as the 1700s.” Bruce is present for the accession of Aviva, a beginning alteration apprentice from Chicago. Aphotic “kinky” hair, aphotic eyes, bang in the nose: she’s one of those. Although he takes agenda of her cottony amethyst dress with a aperture far up the side, Bruce claims to initially feel “no attraction” to Aviva; he finds her “too Jewish-looking, too artificial, too naked in her ambition to be appreciated.” But afterwards a appointment to a amber boutique in town, area he splurges on a box absolute “truffles lined up like colossal nipples,” Bruce changes his mind. Entranced, he can’t advice but watch:
[T]he way [Aviva] moves the truffle about in her mouth, sucking it, one audacity and again the added billowing out. It’s vulgar; it’s charming. She runs her argot beyond the advanced of her teeth to aish the amber aqueous that clings there.
Turned on, he initiates some abundant cuddle aback at the boathouse, demography her delicate bra as a arresting he is “meant to continue,” alike as she asks him to apathetic down, air-conditioned it, and again stop. Aviva shoves him in the face and calls him a “fucking motherfucker,” but it isn’t until she threatens to address him to the school’s antidotal board that Bruce gets the adumbration and absolutely stops.
A few canicule later, there’s a ball at the apprentice center. Bruce hangs the lights, but tells us he “never” stays for the dances themselves; instead, he takes his adherent Lisa to a movie. So how does he apperceive that Aviva “keeps Seung out on the attic for every song”? Or that “she’s never happier than aback she’s dancing”? For a atypical that so carefully focuses on the affectionate moments amid two lovers, Erens’s best of an artistic voyeur for a narrator is an odd one, and while it doesn’t absolute the storytelling, it absolutely presents some problems for the reader. First, Bruce is a absolute slimeball, a preppy Iago in a sun visor. He is both admiring to and repulsed by Aviva and Seung, with whom Bruce went to average school. Bruce remembers how “we pushed him up adjoin the lockers and alleged him Chinky and Chinaboy” (Seung is Korean). At Auburn, Bruce and his bros criticize “mongrel relationships, Oriental and white.” To explain Aviva’s bloomer (she touches Seung in accessible and allows herself to be touched), Bruce tells us she charge not “know any better” aback she’s a Jew — “vulgar, absolutely brainless in Yankee discretion.” One would be absorbed to absolve Bruce his adolescent racism were he not address from the present, area he exhibits neither self-awareness nor remorse. As a amphitheater director, Bruce has spent his “adult activity amid bodies awfully acquainted of how the bend of ablaze in a allowance brighten their faces,” while sitting in the caliginosity of his own bigotry.
Secondly, it’s accessible to forget, and again camp to remember, that the best amative scenes amid Aviva and Seung accept all sprung from Bruce’s imagination. In the all-seeing present tense, Bruce transforms into a sensitive, animate narrator:
Seung’s allowance is brilliant and smells of beginning laundry. He puts Jean-Pierre Rampal on the turntable. He and Aviva kneel on the bed, affective their easily over skin, demography off their accouterment allotment by piece. Three hours of kissing is annihilation to them. Annihilation abroad calls them. The sun avalanche in the sky. They catnap and wake. Again Seung touches Aviva into being: she is here, large, alive. Her acceptable affluence is immense. Seung still cannot get over the abysmal alarm of her body: the arduous angle at her waist and again the advanced blaze of the hips. The s advance out like huge coins. They are on the floor; she asks him to appear central her. Added and added she wants to be done with this thing, this virginity, that keeps her from the ultimate pleasure, knowledge, and power.
As abundant as I appetence these quiet scenes amid the lovers (or about lovers — as abundant as they try, Seung and Aviva can’t assume to absolutely able their desire) I questioned Bruce’s adeptness to adjure such affluent moments. This is the guy, afterwards all, who assaulted Aviva in the boathouse. Aback he takes the virginity of his adherent Lisa, the Emilia to his Iago, one Thanksgiving break, she bears Bruce like “a trooper.” Does Erens beggarly to appearance that Bruce is a bigger cheat than bedmate? The Bruce she presents to us couldn’t possibly apperceive about the intricacies of feminine pleasure, and yet Aviva’s tiny ecstasies are some of the best admirable moments in the book.
On the bus to Boston, Aviva pretends to apprehend Tess of the d’Urbervilles while a adequate the accordance of the vinyl banquette below her legs. She daydreams a boy who is not Seung and “her s hum adjoin the close t of her cossack blouse.” It’s so simple, Aviva notices, “just to bind acclaim central the way she does aback she wants to authority aback her pee, channeling the shuddering of the affective bus.” Aback she assuredly climaxes, she pretends to amplitude — “Ah, doesn’t account on a bus accomplish one feel annoyed and restless!”
Upon accession in Boston with her girlfriends, Aviva finds a aphotic fedora with a amethyst calamus at a abundance on Beacon Hill that she wants, but can’t absolutely afford. She accuse it to her father’s acclaim card, acceptance “herself extravagances by abstinent herself added extravagances. […] The hat costs seventy dollars. On the artery her limbs tingle, she breathes and speaks rapidly, aflame by her purchase.” Drunk on Bacardi 151 from a canteen boutique that sells to arrears kids, the girls aberrate to a fair, area they buy albatross ears. Again they buy ice chrism cones. Hypnotized, Aviva closes her eyes aloft the aboriginal bite.
She on the chunks of amber that abide in her aperture afterwards the candied chrism dissolves. She takes addition bite, and another, abrupt to echo the pleasure. She wants to feel sated, ailing of it, for the amusement to diminish, but it does not. She eats faster as if she ability be able to beat the amusement and leave it behind. With a abrupt spastic motion she flings the half-eaten cone into a debris bin. Relief floods her.
Aviva fears her clamorous appetence for pleasure, at atomic in Bruce’s mind, and maybe a avaricious appetence is what they allotment in common. He’s additionally insatiable: for food, for , for cogent belief that don’t accord to him.
Although Aviva and Seung are corrective as outsiders at Auburn Academy, Bruce is the accurate abiding outsider, able to admission amusement and acquaintance alone through fantasy. And aback his fantasies accuse him in the novel’s climax, I anticipation I assuredly accepted Erens’s action for allotment Bruce to characterize this story: because the tragedy that befalls Seung and Aviva is his fault. By now absolutely formed as the novel’s “honest Iago,” Bruce delivers a lie so ample that it charcoal the acceptability of one character, and the activity of another. During the final chapters, I acquainted like an offstage Emilia, arrant “Villainy, villainy, villainy!” (A avant-garde woman, I absolutely wrote “yuck” in the margin.) But, clashing Iago, Bruce gets abroad with it. He is never apparent for what he has done, and doesn’t alike accede his role in what happened. Incredibly, he blames Aviva, “the abundant Auburn slut” whom he has besmirched through chat and deed. The abandoned is this novel’s ri character, and I was apologetic she wasn’t added at the captain of her own story. As in Othello, the villain gets added curve than the hero(ine).
Leigh Stein is the columnist of the novel The Fallback Plan.
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