That headiness can get a little exasperating. Grow up! I found myself crying at the protagonists, which is of course the point. (Not to mention that a bit more cocksucking might add some needed grit to all the gauzy transcendental longing.) But Erens knows how to temper adolescent portentousness, if not through humor, then through warm evocation. Through the lonely Bennett-Jones viewfinder, she captures teenagers’ receptivity to the world, their desire to lose themselves in it. They are panamorous; having not yet learned to focus their ardor, they fall in love with everything. That suggestibility makes her characters delicate and sympathetic; you worry about them as much as you are annoyed by them. But they also seem to possess a special capacity for heightened experience. In one scene Aviva rides a bus to Boston, noticing the engine sending its “vibrations through the vinyl banquette seats and into her thighs. … Her jeans tighten against her crotch and she feels herself contract to a sharp, sparking point. … It is so simple just to tighten gently inside the way she does when she wants to hold back her pee, channeling the shuddering of the moving bus.” Such is the metaphysics of The Virgins, that the potential eroticism in all things makes them all secretly significant.
Plus there’s the matter of who’s telling us about those thighs and that shuddering. At best, Bruce’s preoccupation with the intimate vagaries of Aviva’s body—the license he gives himself to imagine her pleasure—seems inappropriate and creepy. (And even recounting these details, he is seducing her; Aviva is a reader and consumer of narratives.) At worst, it is predatory. “Over the years I’ve come to understand that telling someone’s story … is at one and the same time an act of devotion and an expression of sadism,” he says. “You are the one moving the bodies around, putting words in their mouths, making them do what you need them to do.” Unlucky with flesh-and-blood Aviva, Bruce relishes his control over hallucinatory Aviva, who also tends to appear when he’s masturbating. Even more dangerous is his talent for conjuring up scenes so achingly innocent, so sweet, that you forget their source. “He [Seung] watches her, always. They go on and on, then rest without talking. They daydream for a long time, and then one or the other begins the touching again. The afternoon is endless. No one will come bother them, no one will knock on the door.” It sounds beautiful at first, this figment from a fallen consciousness. But how does he know? How dare he intrude? Spend enough time with Bruce, and the merest brush of sensation turns tawdry and degraded.
Erens’ young characters are often conducting what seem like cosmic tremors, “channeling” forces of pleasure and danger they don’t quite understand. Take Seung, for instance. He is a stoner with a “passion for intoxication.” He’s discovered “that there is something behind or beyond what ordinary experience presents to him, something he privately calls the inside.” He has arranged his life around this revelation: Even his chosen sport, swimming, requires him to surrender his body to a foreign element. For reasons I won’t reveal here, Seung’s search for tactile, spiritual, and sexual immersion, for loss of self, becomes impossibly wrenching. It takes him to a place where Aviva—a girl who can’t resist checking her reflection in windows “to make sure she is sufficiently vivid, not fading away”—cannot follow. Yet Aviva has a side to her personality that encourages Seung’s journey: “There’s something in Aviva that calls out: Drown.” All sirens have that. Bruce, at least, a reader of Greek myths, must have known in advance how the story would end.
Rather than a space that feels as though it could actually exist, Aviva and Seung inhabit a separate, sealed-off world—a kind of hypersensory Eden, where everything seems extra rich and lush. All surfaces are strokable. You can feel the weight of bodies moving: the “panting” crew team “crammed tight” in the shell; Seung’s finger tracing a word on Aviva’s hip. (And that bus ride!) So much stimulation can be exhausting. And occasionally, serpentlike, a grubbiness or ugliness creeps in.
That ugliness may or may not be Bruce’s fault. “I’ve spent my adult life among people superlatively aware of how the angle of light in a room illuminates their faces,” Bruce, who notably has grown up to be a stage manager, says. “Who know the trick of drawing attention to themselves by withdrawing theirs from everyone else. Aviva had an instinct for these theatrical techniques.” In other words, she is arranging herself to be seen, placing herself at the center of the drama Bruce is spinning. This sounds an awful lot like rape-apologist blather about “asking for it.” Perhaps it should tell us something about the topsy-turvy, sex-crazed inner life of our narrator. When you hold a hammer, everyone looks like they want to be nailed.
The Virgins by Pamela Erens. Tin House Books.