We are introduced to Bruce Bennett-Jones, the narrator of Pamela Erens’s stunning second novel The Virgins, as he first meets Aviva Rossner, a new student at Auburn Academy, the elite East Coast boarding school where they’re high school seniors. Aviva has “long, kinky hair and pale skin,” and wears heavy kohl around her eyes and “V-neck sweaters that tease you into thinking you will catch a glimpse of her breasts”, high-heeled boots and gold hoop earrings. She’s sexy. So sexy in fact, Bruce attempts to rape her in the school boathouse.
Despite her rejection of him, he’s obsessed with Aviva from the start, forced, alongside the rest of the school’s pupils and staff, to stand back and watch the passionate, sexually-charged love affair that blossoms between her and fellow student and all round nice guy, Seung Jung. Aviva and Seung drift around the school like animals on heat, “the sexual and romantic templates” for their peers, but nothing is quite what it seems, and when the cracks in their relationship begin to appear, who’s there waiting and watching, ready to pounce, but Bruce.
The dark double of L. P. Hartley’s Leo Colston, Bruce tells the tale of these tragic star-crossed lovers years after the events in question have transpired. He takes centre stage in the final act so that can be told from memory, but must reconstruct the lovers’ earlier scenes together from the “fragments” of information available (luckily real privacy is hard to come by on campus). “That’s how I imagine things were,” he admits as his imagination follows Aviva into the bathroom, or peeps through a bedroom window. In the process, Bruce becomes a voyeur twice over – the very act of storytelling itself enacting his sadistic sexual fantasies: “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.” Fantasy, the psychoanalytic theorists Jean Laplanche and J. B. Pontalis famously argued, is the “setting for desire” – think of it like a stage-set – thus it’s entirely apt that Bruce has made a career for himself as a theatre director – one who treats his leading ladies with Hitchcockian brutality, I’m sure.
The adolescent imagination in particular is a powerful and dangerous thing; as Bruce explains, “We beginners experienced sex as psyche more than body”. Erens brilliantly captures the dark side of adolescence, a haunting sensuality that lingers in the “private theatre” of Bruce’s mind long into adulthood. On par with the likes of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides and Sheila Kohler’s Cracks, The Virgins is a devastating tour de force that sets a new bar for unreliable narrators.