I had two girlfriends when I was in high school. Well, not at the same time, but, yes, only two. I don’t think of them often, not because of them but because of my own teenage awkwardness and infantile conceptualizations of love. In remembering, I experience the residue of an embarrassment–a chagrin of which I wasn’t even aware at the time. Mostly, it has been forgotten, but I do remember two qualities of my adolescent love life: passion and separation. Now, as a high school English teacher, I’ve seen that I wasn’t atypical; couple’s canoodle in the hall—yes, passionately—and in their devotion to each other they isolate and set themselves apart from their peers. One of my most recent reads, Pamela Eren’s The Virgins from Tin House Books, portrays such a couple. In 1979 at the prestigious boarding school, Auburn Academy, Aviva Rossner and Seung Jung become the icons of teen sexuality and a source of erotic voyeurism and fantasy for their classmates, especially Bruce Bennett-Jones, through whom we receive this story (read a full synopsis here). Through the voice of Bennett-Jones, Erens provides an unsettlingly accurate portrayal of the teenage male psyche and its complexity—deviance, insecurities, pride, and even goodness—and as a narrator, Bruce is perfect in his unreliability.
The story of Aviva and Seung is provocative and heartbreaking, but we can only experience it in the recollections of Bruce Bennett-Jones, who is surprisingly self-aware. Having been rejected by Aviva early in his account, Bruce imagines her from afar, developing his own projection of her—often in the privacy of his dorm-room. Through Bennett-Jones, Erens pulls us into the fantasies of a teenage boy—scenes of masturbation, imagined conversations and conquests—which are unromantically honest, fraught with inexperience, frustration and self-doubt. Bruce Bennett-Jones is what most teenage boys are: preoccupied with sex (sorry, this one’s not a stereotype). Yet, as easy as it is to dislike, even despise, this storyteller, Bruce is not a “bad kid.” He has aspirations and sensitivities and shame. He loves the theater and pursues opportunities in stage directing, despite the wishes and authoritarianism of his father, and, as many of the kids at Auburn Academy, struggles to piece together his own identity under a vague sense of abandonment. The story belongs to Aviva and Seung, yet Bruce Bennett-Jones is the only lens through which we can view it, and so we must see him as he offers himself: complete, unedited, and imperfect.
Bruce is infuriatingly presumptuous and, as a narrator, blatantly and proudly unreliable—which is one of the strongest qualities of this novel. Bruce is a bystander, a friend to neither Aviva nor Seung, yet out of a sense of obligation he endeavors to tell their story, filling in gaps—holiday breaks, private and intimate moments between Aviva and Seung—with his inventions, assumptions and biases. Bruce makes his intentions in this clear from the beginning. Chapter four reads, “I’m inventing Seung, too, of course. It’s the least I can do for him.” That’s it—two sentences sitting in the center of the page, and the chapter is concluded. Bruce assures us that he is making most of this up, and he makes no claims to reliability. From this point on we are forced to doubt him and play the game of differentiating the fiction from the broader work of fiction. Eventually, I settled into the blend of fact and fabrication; it’s the only vehicle available. Bruce tells this story and invents its parts as an attempt to understand and come to terms with his role in the tragedy of Aviva and Seung—a collision he remembers and moves us toward.
The Virgins is a novel both lovely and devastating. The primary characters of this story are teens—with their fears, cruelties, lusts, and anxieties—yet it is not adolescent literature. Pamela Erens invites us to remember our final years of childhood—not the idyllic coming-of-age but the desperation, when passion was new and often keenly painful. Bruce fixates on himself and his connection, both real and imagined, to Aviva and Seung, but he is surrounded by stories—peers with their own successes, failures, and secrets—and we can only see them out of the corner of his eye. Erens suggests and reminds us that we too are surrounded by stories. They intertwine, mingle and sometimes only lightly brush, and it’s often only in looking back that we can both find and invent them.