When Saint Augustine wrote “I did not yet love, and I loved to love; I sought what I might love, in love with loving,” he was talking about his on-again-off-again relationship with the Almighty, and the occasional lapse into more earthly desires. Still, with not too big a stretch of the imagination, the phrase could also apply to a group of sexually awakening preps away at boarding school, the subject of Pamela Erens’s excellent second novel, The Virgins. The year is 1979, the setting is Auburn Academy (an Exeter look-alike), the ethos is sexual, emotional, psychic frustration and release. “We beginners experienced sex as psyche more than body,” Erens writes, “as vulnerability and power, exposure and flight, being anointed, saved, transfigured.”
The story, told in retrospect 30 years later, is narrated by Bruce Bennett-Jones, a spoiled, self-loathing descendant of landed gentry, whose great-great-grandfather was a Supreme Court justice. Largely ignored and sometimes bullied by the rest of the Auburn kids, Bennett-Jones is obsessed with 16-year-old Aviva Rossner, a razor-thin, enigmatic Jewish student whom he sexually assaults at the beginning of the narrative. Soon after, Aviva starts dating Seung Jung, a Korean-American boy with a passion for things like The Köln Concert and Jean-Luc Ponty. They become the “anointed” couple, the object of students’, teachers’, and disciplinary committees’ giddy curiosity, but things look very different from the inside. The two are unable to consummate their relationship, and the novel ends with a series of tragic revelations.
Aviva and Seung’s polymorphously perverse love for love, with little to no carnal knowledge, brings with it new dangers. With patient, fearless prose, Erens manages to deliver a story that takes adolescent love as something serious in its own right, something that comes with its own set of consequences, without equating it to adult love. Just as there’s a sense of a wall around Auburn, insulating it from the world at large, there’s a separation between the narrator and his youthful self, between the sexual politics of pre-Reagan, pre-AIDS America and what came after, between the young subjects of the novel and the older reader. Think back to a time, implores Bruce, “when a tongue pushing deep inside you was as fucked as you could possibly be. I think maybe it was, in fact, more than anything that came later.” This is the greatest divide: before sex and after, in love with love and just in love. It’s a maddeningly significant flash point, around which there is so much to gain, and so many ways to “lose it.”