September 2013

Diane Simmons


The Virgins by Pamela Erens

In our best-known boarding school novel -- at least until Harry Potter came along -- Holden Caulfield is tormented by the "phoniness" he sees everywhere at Pencey Prep, where people are busy impressing others, whether with their expensive luggage or their knowledge of Broadway shows. On the other hand, in the (one and a half) Harry Potter books I have read, there is no little time to worry about phonies. Rather the teenagers are busy battling evil, which generally comes to them through the agency of malevolent adults. Sometimes the youngsters are on their own in this fight; sometimes they are aided by wise and powerful grownups.

Pamela Erens's novel The Virgins is also set in a boarding school, but the obsessions have changed. While consumer goods and entertainments excite the well-to-do students in post-Depression, postwar The Catcher in the Rye, their 1979 counterparts at Auburn Academy in upstate New York dress down in jeans and frumpy sweaters. Here the important marker of present and future status is an elite education. Though no one is shown to be particularly interested in studies, nearly everyone can expect to get into at least "one of the lesser Ivies." And while some may find traces of "phoniness" in the way "education" is used to mark and perpetuate class status, the students at Auburn don't see this as a problem; it is the air they have always breathed. Nor do the students at Auburn Academy battle, at least in any direct way, the evil that adults have visited on the world as do youngsters in Hogwarts. Life beyond the walls of the school is barely visible.

In fact, one of the remarkable features of The Virgins is that in this world of teenagers there is almost zero adult influence. Parents exist, but they are wrapped up in their own, often dysfunctional or narcissistic lives, and have little time or inclination for positive intervention in those of their kids. "My mother I don't mind so much," says the book's narrator, the well-born Bruce Bennett-Jones. She is an alcoholic, we learn, but a genteel one. Bruce's father, whom he considers an "enemy," does at least weigh in with disapproval from time to time. "'I might like having an enemy,'" replies Aviva, the novel's sixteen-year-old protagonist. Her parents, she explains, "permit everything, notice nothing." They are, to be sure, quite busy: her mother, a feminist academic, takes care to use the word "cunt" in her lectures, even when -- perhaps especially when -- Aviva and a boyfriend visit class. And Aviva's father has recently set up house with an energetic bimbo. Equally uninterested are the Auburn teachers. Mildly depressed to be stuck in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of teenagers, they play little role in the novel and mostly they are seen retreating to their quarters to drink. Even Amtrak employees turn a blind eye, leaving a carful of Auburn students to get stoned on their way back to school from New York City, as if even the conductors understand that the young people are, in a sense, on an island with rules of their own.

Though the teenagers pretend to despise the school's rules and restrictions, this is an island they are eager to inhabit. They view themselves not as abandoned -- though when she leaves home Aviva wishes her father would say he will miss her -- but as fortunate escapees from the restrictions of childhood. Erens, then, does not use the boarding school novel as a mirror of society in microcosm. Rather she has created a distillation of pure, unmediated adolescent trauma. The result is an intimate and remarkably harrowing account of the search for the emerging self.

For the novel's central figure, sixteen-year-old Aviva, this is not a routine rite of passage. Rather she is engaged in a psychic struggle for survival, desperate to discover, somehow, a durable sense of her own reality. Though she has requested to go to boarding school, she is terrified as she arrives, afraid to find that she is "invisible." In every window she passes, she checks her reflection "to make sure that she is sufficiently vivid, not fading away. She half expects, each time she looks to see nothing there."

Somehow, she must find a way to make a connection with life, to become convinced that she is not just a figment of her own imagination, a creature unknown and unfinished, in all senses of the word, a virgin. Her clothes are okay; Aviva's flamboyant style makes her stand out, though she is never secure in her looks. Drugs are okay, but nothing really new, not the transformative experience they were for a previous generation. Shopping and food are fine, though only a temporary fix.

The solution, in the usual sense of the word, is sex. For Aviva, sex will be transformative. It will, she is certain, finally make her whole and permanent, creating an eternally inscribed connection with another. And in the wintery world of the school, where most passions are considered uncool, Aviva and the lover she chooses become an obsession among the other students; their relationship is followed as if it were being projected on a screen in a hot dark theater.

Particularly enthralled is the narrator, Bruce, whose clumsy pass at the newly-arrived Aviva was rebuffed, and who is able -- or so he says -- to recount every detail of the tortured sex life she shares with the dark, muscular Seung, experiences so intense, so desperate that they become quite literally a matter of life and death. Though Aviva and Seung are necessarily well-to-do, they are also different from most of their Auburn classmates. While the students are generally Waspish and Northeastern, Aviva, with her thick, black mop of hair, is Jewish from Chicago. Seung is Korean, the son of successful immigrant strivers. Bruce, meanwhile, is of an especially prominent family, a judge's son whose family was "landed gentry as far back as the 1700s." Though Bruce lacks charisma and is possessed, as he says of himself, of a "squat, impotent body," his family status kept him in the right group in his New Jersey middle school. Meanwhile Seung, who attended the same middle school, "got grabbed in the hallways, called a sneaky Chink."

But somehow, when both boys end up at the same prep school, the roles reverse and Bruce is chagrined: "I couldn't understand how [Seung] rose so high, so free of his name and his looks, how he became a leader, while I was jut some other guy from the joke state of New Jersey." Worse, Bruce can't rate someone fascinating like Aviva, and must, for the time being, make do with a plain, dutiful girl who is likewise making do with him until she moves on to Harvard or at least Brown.

Do Aviva's and Seung's differences intensify their search for an identity that others slip into as easily as they don their ubiquitous Fair Isle sweaters? Does Bruce's reduced prestige precipitate the Iago-like role he plays -- or fantasizes that he plays, for his narration is not entirely reliable -- in the story's tragic denouement? This is part of the puzzle Erens has constructed and not to be given away. Except to say that it is, strangely, the judge's son who carries out the book's only conscious act of rebellion. Refusing to become the umpteenth Bennett-Jones to attend Dartmouth, Bruce goes to Bard, where he studies, perhaps tellingly, theater.

The Virgins by Pamela Erens
Tin House Books
ISBN 978-1935639626
288 pages

Diane Simmons is the author of the short story collection Little America, winner of the Ohio State University prize for short fiction.