Books In Conversation
PAMELA ERENS with Elizabeth Trundle
(Tin House Books, 2013)
(Tin House Books, 2014)
Though our hearts may break for lonely characters in fiction, we still don’t have to invite them to dinner. A once-glittering socialite like Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart ends up penniless, friendless, and doomed, and we settle back with a weepy cocktail of pity and anger. After all, she’s not our responsibility. But how could her friends and society simply cast her away? Maybe it’s her fault after all. Too proud for the pack. Didn’t fit in. Human beings learn from an early age the dangers of isolation. No sane person would seek it out.
Luckily for readers, and writers, people are insane, more or less, and it’s not unusual for a character to fall out of community and into psychic and physical peril. Author Pamela Erens explores this theme, among others, in her two novels, both published by Tin House Books. The Virgins, out since August, tracks three students through an academic year at a fictionalized boarding school circa 1980. Erens captures a young couple’s consuming sexual relationship through the perspective of a spurned suitor, who plays a role in the union’s unraveling. The juiciness of this love triangle offers a stark contrast to the solitary struggles of the narrator in Erens’s first novel, The Understory, reissued this month. In The Understory, a loner’s quiet life is upended when he loses his rent-controlled apartment in New York City. Both novels move along at a tightly controlled pace toward potent and brilliantly conceived conclusions; readers are in safe hands. And we need this safety, because along the way, Erens takes us to some dark, uncomfortable places.
I first met Pamela Erens in a comfortable, well-lit place, a literary event in the suburban town where we both live. I was inspired to read The Virgins, even though I don’t usually gravitate to “prep school fiction.” Probably I still have a chip on my shoulder from ninth grade, when two friends decamped for a boarding school in the Northeast. This upgrade granted them an early escape from family life. It was like winning the lottery. But what would happen when they got there? Pamela Erens offers a possible answer, and a compelling one, in The Virgins. She elevates her tale to the realm of adult experience and beyond, delving into the human struggle with failure, success, identity, and the “death of one’s ideal soul.”
Elizabeth Trundle (Rail): This is a good place to jump into our discussion, because you manage to drape grand philosophical concepts like the “death of an ideal soul” over your characters’ everyday struggles. Thoreau, Aristophanes, Plutarch, Descartes. Do “immortals” like this populate your daily thinking? How does your reading inform the way you structure and style your own work?
Pamela Erens: I’m much less well-read in big thinkers than I’d like to be. I find my mind doesn’t stick to philosophy as well as it does to fiction. But at the same time I do tend to feel troubled and inspired by big concepts such as time, self, solitude, love, death. It’s often the desire to explore one of these that gets me launched on a work of fiction. And then, not surprisingly, my narrators or other characters start musing about it, too. Probably whatever reading I did in high school and college gave me the sense that it was possible—and worthwhile—to ask big, somewhat abstract questions. And certainly some of what I’ve read (then, and since) has helped me sort out my thoughts. But fiction pushes you toward the concrete. So the concepts get played out through characters interacting in certain ways and having certain experiences. I do enjoy those moments, though, where a narrator, first person or third, can pop out of the action and comment on it in a more general way, as in the “death of one’s ideal soul” line. But those moments are dangerous. Sometimes they don’t fly.
Rail: True, not every character can carry the weight of a big idea. But each of your novels offers a contemplative refuge from the unthinking world. In The Understory it’s a residential Buddhist center in Vermont; in The Virgins it’s the rarified intellectual atmosphere of Auburn Academy. Neither of these institutions is able to offer the safety it promises. Is there a message here about the ultimate power of ideas and what they can and cannot do for us?
Erens: I like that association between the monastery and the boarding school, which I hadn’t thought of myself. Perhaps you’re on to something. Buddhism doesn’t save Jack Gorse because it’s not a magic pill. And because even those who fully devote themselves to its rigorous and complex practice don’t stop being human and experiencing human perils. At the boarding school, even a great education and a well-meaning administration can’t stop teenagers from being teenagers (and experiencing teenage perils). There are no institutions, or, as you say, ideas, that offer total safety. That’s what I love about fiction—it’s a reminder of the imperfect real.
Rail: As someone who did not attend a boarding school, I’m curious about the influence such a culture can exert on its students. Did you set out with an intention to expose this power, or did it simply exert itself in the narrative as you moved through your story?
Erens: “Exposing its power,” sounds as if I might have had a hostile agenda, which I didn’t. I did go to boarding school, and it shaped me very strongly, as I think living away from home has to do when you are 16 and 17. I wanted to capture the intensity of that experience, the oddness of it, the excitement of it, and also the dangers. I loved boarding school, and if anything, I was trying to make that love, that passion, even, felt by readers. But of course, even places you love can be complicated, and so I’m not surprised that you picked up a certain malevolent vibe. Certainly, for the three main characters in The Virgins, the place is malevolent, even if it wasn’t for me.
Rail: One problem with ivory towers is that inhabitants sometimes close in on themselves to defend against perceived intruders. At Auburn Academy, the young lovers, Aviva and Seung, are racial outsiders. The narrator, Bruce Bennett-Jones, is the ultimate insider, a wealthy “legacy” whose father and grandfather both attended the school. When Bruce disparages Aviva and Seung with slurs such as “slanty-eyed” and “big nosed,” he speaks for the collective “we,” the entire student body, which gets a voyeuristic pleasure out of watching Seung and Aviva kiss and grope in public. This group mentality evolves and expresses itself throughout the novel. Did you model this narrative feature on any theatrical or classical story-telling tradition?
Erens: I didn’t consciously use any theatrical or classical story-telling tradition, although I like your idea that Bruce invokes a kind of shadowy chorus. I’ll remember that! Bruce speaking for the student body at large was something that emerged naturally, and I would say it felt freeing. His voice allowed me to get at what was going on outside of the somewhat claustrophobic triangle of Seung-Aviva-Bruce.
Rail: I don’t experience their relationship as claustrophobic. There is, however, a confining, airless intensity to the inner life of Jack Gorse of The Understory. He is just so strikingly alone. And you follow him under a very close lens as he performs the rituals of his obsessive-compulsive existence. How was Jack born in your imagination? How did he develop? And how did it feel to spend so much time with him?
Erens: The Understory came out of one particular idea and one particular image. I had the bizarre idea of a man who was looking for a twin, who believed he could find some sort of spiritual twin for himself. At one point, I had him literally advertising for that twin in the Village Voice. This was all far-fetched enough that gradually it became muted into the obsession that Jack has with ordinary twins—a more realistic displacement of his longing for an intimate.
The image was of a man on a winter night looking into brightly lit shop and restaurant windows. The city walker, looking in at conviviality and human warmth from the outside.
Jack developed—well, just by being put through his paces. There were plenty of scenes I later cut, feeling they didn’t reveal him that much. I kept whatever seemed to have the necessary density and pressure. I didn’t mind spending time with him at all. He interested me. I’m a person who tends much more toward order and control than the opposite. I come from a family of orderly people. I feel that I understand such people much better than I do people who are wild risk-takers. With Jack, it was a matter of just taking a need for order and control to an extreme and seeing where that led the character and the story.
Rail: And you get behind another intense male narrator in The Virgins. Bruce Bennett-Jones is not as fringe and abject as Jack, but he may be more sinister. Bruce’s vantage point is that of his adult self, looking back on high school, and he suggests he is revisiting the events as a redemptive act. Can you describe how this point of view developed, and how you clung to it so successfully through the telling of a love story that really belongs to Aviva and Seung?
Erens: I decided to make Bruce that sort of strange blend of first-person and omniscient narrator early on, after reading a piece in the New York Review of Books about James Salter. The piece was written by Joyce Carol Oates. Salter’s novel A Sport and a Pastime also has a male narrator who describes a sexual relationship between another man and a woman, a relationship he wasn’t in fact privy to. I had read the novel, and loved it, but hadn’t thought about it in relation to my nascent story. But after reading Oates’s article, I thought I’d try making Bruce the same kind of narrator, and it really opened everything up. And once I had Bruce in place I also had the premise of him telling the story from a distance in time, examining himself and trying to figure out what portion of guilt was his own.
Rail: Bruce occasionally addresses the reader directly, excusing some of his twistedness by urging us to try to remember the intensity and frustrations of teenaged sex. He mentions details like kissing for hours, and a boy who is forced to ejaculate into his zipped jeans after a protracted session of what my friends and I used to call “dry humping.” What were the ups and downs of this particular theme?
Erens: I’m not sure what you mean by the ups and downs. I just wanted, like Bruce, to make people remember! I do think adults tend to dismiss their adolescent experiences and feelings as they get older. They forget how urgent and frightening and exhilarating everything was. Or maybe they don’t forget but they pooh-pooh it, as if all that was somewhat nutty and silly. For some reason, I haven’t forgotten and I don’t think it was silly, so I wanted to put it out there on the page!
Rail: Maybe we dismiss them because they are too painful or embarrassing to remember. Or maybe we’re just prudish. I admit I was a little surprised by some of the graphic detail you use to describe the sex these characters are, and are not, having with each other. Intercourse, date rape, ball sacks, impotence, diaphragm jelly, blow jobs, battering. You go “all the way,” and I admire you for it (even as I flinch and squirm). How did you find yourself in such a liberated, expressive mode and how did it feel to be rooted there (or return to it) throughout the duration of the novel’s composition?
Erens: I’m probably just a bit of a perv. Seriously, though, I think sex is fascinating. It’s deeply affected by our thoughts and feelings, not to mention our stage of development. Once I decided to handle this material, I just wanted to deal with it in the clearest and most straightforward way I could. Thus the explicit words and details. That said, I included only sexual scenes that I felt revealed something about the characters and the changes they were going through during this time at school. Nothing was in there to be transgressive.
Also, remember that The Virgins is about teenaged sex. It didn’t feel as intimidating or as difficult to write about as I’m sure writing about adult sexuality would be. There was a psychological distance built in.
Rail: You can almost understand why Jack, in The Understory, has chosen the path of abstinence, hiding away from the world and repressing his need for sex and all other kinds of human contact. Instead, he scours the city for sightings of identical twins and lurks around a densely wooded area in Central Park, sniffing at the edges of the sexual trysts he knows he will find there. You call this part of the park “The Ramble.” Is it based on a real place?
Erens: The Ramble is most definitely a real place. It’s at the center of the park, in a spot that corresponds roughly to 73rd to 79th streets. And for decades it was notorious as a gay hookup spot. Wikipedia claims that there was gay cruising there as early as the 1920s. That activity apparently has fallen off a lot since the turn of the century. Anyway, it’s a gorgeous spot. I like to visit it, and I wanted to honor its beauty by putting it in the book. But of course the homosexual connotations were another reason to do so.
Rail: And then in The Virgins, we encounter the juvenile counterpart in a patch of wilderness students call “The Bog.” The Ramble and the Bog. Tempting? Dangerous? Why do important things in your novels happen there?
Erens: I love the way you show me connections in my own work! You’re right—the Ramble and the Bog are both natural spots where temptation occurs. Maybe I did this in both books because secluded areas inherently provide effective backdrops for transgressions. Right now I happen to be reading George Eliot’s Adam Bede, and the plot pivots on a seduction that occurs in a wooded spot called the Grove. And you’re also making me think of The Scarlet Letter and how a meeting in the forest almost leads Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale to renew their clandestine affair.
Rail: It’s nice to think there are still patches of wild in Central Park; and we do spend a lot of time there in The Understory. The title, in fact, references the park’s undergrowth. You expand on the challenges of taming nature with your scenes in the bonsai shed at the monastery. Can you talk a little about how you conceived the various threads running through The Understory and how they came together to form a whole?
Erens: I came to the bonsai intuitively. I just felt that a guy like Jack would be drawn to these miniaturized trees that are the result of the strenuous application of control. I came to Jack’s fascination with plants and taxonomies—and twins, as mentioned before—intuitively also. None of this stuff was arrived at intellectually; these interests and fascinations just accreted around the character.
Rail: These accretions add a nice depth to your deceptively simple plot structure. And I don’t mean to make it sound like there is only one character in The Understory. This is not the literary equivalent of Castaway or Gravity. The young architect Patrick, Joku the Buddhist monk, a friendly waitress, a needy neighbor, and the phantom family members: all come alive in the pages. And when we do need fresh air, you take us out for a long walk through New York City, which is beautifully observed. Jack walks down to the Brooklyn Bridge every day for 14 years and stands at the top of the span. I keep thinking he is going to jump. Is that just me? Why doesn’t he?
Erens: Wow, you did? I have to say I was never going to send him off that bridge. I don’t think he’s the suicidal type. At least, he’s not during the 14 years leading up to the events of the novel. He’s pretty content with his very buttoned-up life, with his order and routines. And once things start to fall apart, all he wants is to be with Patrick. If he killed himself, he wouldn’t have any chance of ending up with Patrick.
Rail: Good point. But it does make you wonder if maybe Jack Gorse wouldn’t have been better off without his education, his trust fund, and his rent-controlled apartment. Bruce, in The Virgins, also seems both burdened and freed by his inheritance. (Unlike his rival Seung, the son of hard-working Korean immigrants, who washes dishes in the school cafeteria.) The fates of the two boys diverge dramatically as the plot of The Virgins progresses. Would you attribute this to their class and race differences, or to other personal qualities that both serve and hinder them?
Erens: It’s both, I think. I recently finished reading the five Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn, and, boy, if there’s a literary work that reveals the corrosive effect of old money on the human spirit, it’s this one. Some of Bruce’s less admirable qualities may come from his sense of entitlement. And because he doesn’t have to work to earn money as Seung does, and because he doesn’t have that sense of ambition that many children of immigrants do, he may be more susceptible to boredom and ennui. Bored people can be dangerous. But of course some of what happens to these characters has to do with their individual personalities. You can have kids of privilege who are very altruistic and energetic, and kids of immigrants who are passive and cynical.
Rail: And then there’s your female lead in The Virgins, Aviva Rossner, who straddles the line between race and class. She has the money to buy whatever clothes she wants, but is so confused about who she is and what she represents that her choices alienate her from the people she hopes to impress. She’s the kind of young woman no one seems to understand. As a reader, I didn’t always understand her either, though I felt a tremendous amount of compassion for her. This “horrific emptiness” that haunts and defines her; the book suggests that it actually turns her lovers away at the gates, metaphorically and literally (physically). Can you say more about this? What will become of this unwilling virgin?
Erens: Well, you’ve put your finger on what Aviva fears—that it is something about her that makes Seung unable to make love to her. Sex is not a neutral experience. Life is not a neutral experience. When things happen, we interpret them according to the stories we’ve told ourselves about who we are. So you have this girl who is afraid she’s empty inside, who is afraid she’s unlovable. She has an experience with a boy in which he can’t complete sex with her. Another girl might think: Bummer. Next time. Or: What can I do to make this work better? Aviva thinks: I’m damaged goods.
She’s not a virgin at the very end, of course. But her deflowering hasn’t been the beautiful or powerful experience she had hoped for, to say the least. I don’t know what happens to Aviva after the end of the book. Sometimes I like to ask readers for their predictions.
Rail: You know how to resolve a satisfying narrative arc without completely ending the story. By the time I finished The Understory, I felt like maybe I was coming a little unhinged myself. Jack is so often greeted with fear and revulsion during his casual encounters; and he doesn’t understand the reason for it. He makes these awkward fumbles while trying to reach out. He just doesn’t realize he’s a crazy stalker, and this creates an excruciating dissonance. Do you think there’s a little of Jack in all of us?
Erens: I wouldn’t presume to say “all of us,” but I think that a dissonance between what we think we’re presenting and what we do present is extremely common. There is the woman who thinks she’s flirty and charming but in fact is broadcasting neediness. There’s the man who thinks he’s manly and macho but reads as loutish. Yeah, we all have idealized versions of ourselves, and we’d probably be shocked to know how we really come off.
Rail: Yes, it’s a scary thought. But we can also take comfort in the fact that we are (hopefully) not as poorly received as Jack. And personal relationships bring no guarantees, as you demonstrate in your second novel through the experiences of Seung Jung. He has everything Jack Gorse lacks: loyal friends, good looks, charm, athletic ability, romantic love. And yet he also finds himself dangerously isolated and alone. Do you think things would have turned out differently if the same events unfolded today instead of in 1980?
Erens: My guess is that boarding schools today are a bit more on top of kids than they were in the late ’70s and early ’80s, just as parents today are more on top of kids. The Virgins takes place in the early years of coeducation. Administrations at these schools were just figuring things out. They didn’t really know how to deal with the sexual activity, except to forbid it and at times pretend they didn’t see it. But, honestly, teenagers are going to go through mess, pain, and trauma wherever they are. Anywhere is a tough place to be a teenager. We wouldn’t want boarding school administrators and faculty to be Stasi agents, spying through every keyhole, grooming informants. There’s only so much boarding schools can do, now as well as then, to prevent teenagers from getting into very sticky situations. Just as parents whose kids are at home, right under their noses, have a lot of trouble keeping them from harm. I have a lot of empathy for the faculty and administration at these schools. Most of them care very much about the welfare and development of young people, and they have a tough job.
Rail: It is a tough job, and I would also add that your affection for your boarding school experience does indeed shine through in The Virgins. I also agree that there is only so much rescuing a community can do, whether it’s an extended family, a school, or a town. People fall through the cracks, sometimes on purpose. In an essay from the Atlantic (May 2012), writer Stephen Marche discusses the American trend toward independence and individuality at the expense of extended family and community. He describes it as a choice we make, and suggests that we are willing to pay the price, which is loneliness. Americans have “accepted it as the price of their autonomy.” Clearly Jack pays the price; and the reader, at least, finds out what a life of solitary reading has cost him. Seung and Aviva make the mistake of “bisolation:” when lovers dive so deeply into each other that the safety raft of community can no longer bring them back to shore.
I found both of your novels as provocative and heartfelt as they were tense, thrilling, and psychologically taut. What’s on your desk now?
Erens: A new novel that is giving me hell! I’m trying to keep hold of the reins.
Rail: Something tells me you’ll bring it back into the barn. Best of luck with that, and I am sure there are many readers out there who, like me, eagerly await your next book.