Pamela Erens‘ smashing second novel, THE VIRGINS, is a novel destined to be a classic, mostly because it is so expertly written and expresses such truths, but also because it pulls from many classics all the while inverting them, offering readers a fresh view of that which we thought we knew.
In many ways, the novel’s narrator Bruce Bennett-Jones is Nick Carraway to Seung Jung’s Gatsby, as Bennett-Jones smugly and expertly narrates all of the action and emotion of the characters around him at his East Coast prep school, especially that of fish-out-of-water turned golden boy, Seung, and his sexy and exotic girlfriend, Aviva. The world that Bennett-Jones creates for us is fully his own, but director that he is, he is completely comfortable showing us the work of those who act around him, casting them, oftentimes, against the grain of expectation.
At the center of Bennett-Jones’s world are the beautiful, aspirational couple of Aviva and Seung. Bennett-Jones both covets their relationship and is repulsed by it. He does not wish to posses Aviva in every emotional way that Seung does. Instead, he wishes to ravage her, which could make Seung the hero, the romantic lead, Romeo Montague, and Bennett-Jones the villian. But wait, that is all too simplistic, for Aviva is no Juliet. She is not willing to give up anything for her romance with Seung, certainly not her life.
Aviva wants out. She wants someone who can please her as much as she wants to restrict herself from pleasure. She wants to breathe. She doesn’t know what she wants other than she wants to not be a virgin anymore, because after all, she is not the woman everyone perceives her to be. She’s a kid, she’s starving herself, and she’s scared.
She is also liberated. She can ask for sex. She can want to have it. She can be disappointed when she doesn’t get it.
So is Aviva Emma Bovary then? Is she Anna Karenina? Is she Edna Pontellier?
Through the eyes of Bennett-Jones, she is all of them and none of them, for she is not oppressed by anything external to her own thoughts and the desires that she wished she didn’t have. It is Seung who is oppressed. It is he who has to fight most against the confines of the world where he exists and the expectations of those around him, especially those of Aviva and his parents.
And it is Seung who, like Bovary, Karenina, Pontellier, pays the price in the end, as he stupidly sacrifices himself for that which he thought was lost.
Though they are central to the plot, the novel is not really about Aviva and Seung. From the beginning, we know who we are meant to follow and that is Bennett-Jones, who is Meursault in L’étranger, guilty, judged as much as he is The Talented Mr. Ripley, easily pushing forward when he has ruined the lives of others. And yet he seems to have something of a conscience, or at least he wants his audience to believe he does.
Even though we are not meant to like him, we can’t help but admire the way he maneuvers through his life and the lives of others, eventually getting his way (or at least telling us that he does). Ultimately, Bennett-Jones is utterly compelling; out from behind the curtain, he becomes the star of the show, and when it is his turn to take a bow, we give him a standing ovation.