book review

Either/Or Is a Coming-of-Age Story That Moves at the Speed of Thought

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Publisher

Selin Karadağ is a teenage would-be writer who arrives at Harvard in 1995 ready to meet challenging, meaningful people and live a challenging, meaningful life — one “unmarred by laziness, cowardice, and conformity” and ideally full of interesting love affairs and art-making. Over the course of the next year, she is greeted, like all freshmen, by a constant fluctuation of banalities and revelations. Certain aspects of campus life are immutable: Literature professors won’t ever say “what books really meant”; football players always sit together in the dining hall; in-class crushes conveniently avoid mentioning their girlfriends. On the revelations side, three things carry the most weight for Selin: her intense relationship with her friend and foil Svetlana; her fixation on how language works (seen equally in her interest in Russian, linguistics, and the new medium of email); and her unrequited love for Ivan, an infuriating older math major whom she pursues haplessly to Hungary for the summer.

For Selin, events are overwhelming, and deeper understanding is not available. Because The Idiot, Elif Batuman’s first novel, dwells entirely in the immediate experience of its teller — this happened, then this happened, then this — the novel ultimately thwarts its readers’ expectations and perhaps our desires. The Idiot looks as though it’s setting us up for a conventional coming-of-age story, then concludes with a deflating admission of failure. In the last line of the novel, Selin declares, “I hadn’t learned anything at all.”

When I first read The Idiot upon its release in spring 2017, I felt a real pressure to love it. As a fellow former comp lit grad student, it was kind of like a family obligation. I loved Batuman’s criticism and journalism in The New Yorker, and I loved her essay collection, The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. I also love a novel that asks smart questions about the idea of the novel. I found Selin’s first-person narration dryly funny and observant; even her powerful, confusing attraction to Ivan is described with a kind of matter-of-factness that expresses her mystification better than any flight of poetic fancy could. Being a freshman in college is like this: Too much random stuff happens for anything to accrue meaning — yet. The novel captures the college experience so well that, unfortunately, it can read a bit too authentically like the journal of a particularly precocious undergraduate. I admired the gutsiness of its unresolved, bathetic ending but was nonetheless irked by it. Somehow, it felt incredibly true to life and gimmicky at the same time.

This month, Batuman publishes a sequel, Either/Or. It takes the same shape as the first book, carrying us through Selin’s sophomore year and the summer after. But where The Idiot is concerned with what’s happening in the now, Either/Or struggles to process the events of her freshman year. And from the wink of the Søren Kierkegaard epigraph — “is it not a pity and a shame that books are written which confuse people about life … instead of teaching them how to live?” — it’s instantly clear that Either/Or is a book more about thought than plot.

The novel’s pacing follows the way Selin experiences time, with the first third of the book devoted to only the first four weeks of the school year, as she settles into her new dorm. She obsesses over Ivan, who has left for graduate school at Berkeley. In retrospect, it’s increasingly clear Ivan is just a boring 20-something guy fascinated with the specialness of his own feelings — at least, it’s clear to the reader. For Selin, getting over Ivan is more the slow, unnoticed flickering out of a flame than the instant snuffing out of a candle: He gradually fades from her thoughts as other people and ideas clamor for air. The book’s part two, in which Selin falls into a depression, is titled “The Rest of the Fall Semester,” as if Either/Or, like its narrator, were throwing its hands up in exhaustion. The later sections roll out with a convincingly jerky momentum, each part shorter than the last as the semesters barrel into the summer. Selin’s actions feel less and less controlled as she makes dramatic choices for the sake of making choices (like having sex for the first time with an uncaring upperclassman) while the novel’s structure makes more and more sense. We learn to trust Batuman’s way of capturing how feeling can leverage temporality.

As the book goes on, Selin poses unanswered and unanswerable questions that are by turns funny (upon giving her first hand job: “What was the point of delegating it to someone who would do a worse job?”), profound (“Was it sex — ‘having’ sex — that would restore to me the sense of my life as a story?”), and sometimes both (“Why did I always seem to be in the wrong place, listening to the wrong music?”). These accumulating, inwardly directed queries generate the book’s momentum more than the events of the exterior world. Occasionally, you get the feeling Batuman has been waiting to deploy some of these one-liners since her actual undergraduate conversations in 1996. Yet miraculously, they work perfectly in this book, which moves unpredictably at the pace of deliberation.

Selin, always the good student, continues to seek a reference book to tell her how to become a writer, a woman, a human. In The Idiot, she tries to find meaning in language itself, getting hilariously (and poignantly) derailed by a Russian-language textbook whose scenarios she literally reenacts with Ivan in and out of class. In Either/Or’s opening pages, Selin picks up Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, a philosophical text that directly explores the difference between an aesthetic life and an ethical one. Broadly speaking, Kierkegaard’s work, like Batuman’s, is a book about looking for the right script to follow in order to learn “how to live.” But Selin doesn’t follow Kierkegaard’s instructions and “either read the whole book, or just not read it at all.” Like many readers, she skips to “The Seducer’s Diary,” a novella embedded in the first volume, which she finds jarringly parallel to her history with Ivan. “When I read that, I almost threw up,” she says of one section. “Wasn’t that what had happened to me?” Regardless of Selin’s selective reading, Kierkegaard’s presence in the background of the novel reminds readers to always keep an eye on its bigger philosophical questions.

As I got further into Either/Or, all the things I’d found unsatisfactory and even irritating about The Idiot gradually started to make sense. Together, the two books give an honest depiction of how growing up actually works. Classic examples of the bildungsroman, or novel of formation, suggest books can act as watertight containers for the crisis and resolution of young adulthood, from Great Expectations to The Catcher in the Rye. Even series spanning childhood to adulthood (say, Anne of Green Gables) are structured by single volumes with clear beginnings and resolute ends. The beginnings and ends of The Idiot and Either/Or are the impersonal, arbitrary boundaries offered by the academic school year — boundaries to which emotional development doesn’t adhere, as any student will tell you. The progressive structure of the conventional coming-of-age novel can’t account for the long, uneven periods of processing that really enable emotional, intellectual, or artistic development; this baggy sequel is necessary because growing up, Batuman suggests, can’t be contained in a single plot arc.

Either/Or also has elements of a related type of coming-of-age story: the Künstlerroman, the novel of artistic formation. Here, though, it’s more like a prequel. Instead of showing the young writer toiling away at her creative work, Either/Or is a big, slow book that allows its protagonist the time and space to puzzle through the philosophical problem of what an aesthetic life might look like for a young woman before she can really embark upon one. We know Selin wants to be a novelist, but we witness her write very little. In The Idiot, she pens one prize-winning short story that she finds embarrassing and doesn’t want anyone to read. In Either/Or, she enrolls in a creative-writing class, and we’re not privy to what she produces. Selin is not sure she can be a novelist. Art, in her world as in ours, is confusing and does not come by grace but by laborious intellectual, emotional, and philosophical trial and mostly error.

Looking at the two books from this angle, one might find an ancestor in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses: the first, a fraught coming-of-age narrative about the character of Stephen Dedalus, is followed by a big, ambitious sequel that both does and does not address what happens to him. But where Ulysses explodes energetically outward from Dedalus to embrace other characters and all of Dublin itself, Either/Or retains its tight focus on Selin. (A better analogue might be Joanna Hogg’s recent film sequence The Souvenir and The Souvenir Part II, about a young would-be filmmaker who goes through a traumatic love affair, then slowly struggles to process that experience and translate it into art.) The Idiot maintains a certain awkward distance from most of its other characters. Either/Or reveals more about how Selin interacts with the other people in her life, from the random people she encounters at parties to the cast of friends and lovers who rotate in and out of intimacy to her mother and her well-connected Turkish family. All the same, the reader remains firmly embedded in Selin’s perspective and the workings of her thoughts.

This perspective is a complicated one. Often, I felt as though Selin’s inner monologue had an uncanny stereo effect, like two choirs singing at each other from opposite sides of a room. Her narration emanates simultaneously from some protected, deeply interior place and a profoundly distant, exterior one. The distance here is achieved by time. Even though this book doesn’t state that it’s written retrospectively (the way Elena Ferrante’s novels about youth, for example, are self-consciously written from the stance of old age), it conveys the slow-onset horror many women can only experience looking back through the lens of decades on their early sexual experiences. At the same time, it expresses the kind of inward-burrowing dissociation necessary to have those experiences in the first place: I’ve never read such a precise rendering of the busywork the brain engages in during a questionable dorm-room hookup. The effect is sometimes harrowing. This doubled distance avoids touching the too sensitive skin of immediate experience because doing so would hurt too much; the one instance when Selin does admit frankly how she has been emotionally and physically injured by a sexual encounter is almost too painful to bear. As Batuman writes, she “had been hurt, and hurt, and hurt, for two hours.”

It bears noting that all of Batuman’s books so far have been named after “great books” by male authors: The Possessed and The Idiot, both by Dostoevsky, and now Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. (This one could well have been named after Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, the last novel Selin reads in it.) The question of how a woman should write — using what forms and what language — quietly churns away under the surface. Midway through the novel, Selin encounters the French second-wave feminist concept of écriture féminine, a kind of writing that would spring from an entirely female symbolic order, and finds it repellent. Reading French feminist thinker Hélène Cixous, she is irritated by the theorist’s claim that “a feminine textual body is recognized by the fact that it is always endless, without ending: there’s no closure, it doesn’t stop, and it’s this that very often makes the feminine text difficult to read.” Selin seeks a kind of writing that expresses the questioning way she moves through the world but doesn’t necessarily alienate its readers. “Why,” Selin wonders, “did we have to write stuff that was hard to read and didn’t have an ending, just because men were wrong?”

Either/Or manages to be easy to read while provoking hard thoughts — and its thrillingly sudden ending dismisses the very idea of “endings.” It’s truer to life for a story to unfurl unpredictably, to spill out of its own leaky container. This impulse plays out across all three of Batuman’s books including her nonfiction debut, The Possessed. In that book’s introduction, she writes, with brisk hilarity, about the same autobiographical events (going to Harvard, studying linguistics and Russian, and following a “mysterious and absent” Hungarian mathematician to his home country) she would later put Selin through in The Idiot. Batuman has now processed these same events three times in three different books, and looking back, I feel as though I should have seen what she was up to from the start. As she concludes in the introduction to The Possessed, “Events and places succeed one another like items on a shopping list. There may be interesting and moving experiences, but one thing is guaranteed: they won’t naturally assume the shape of a wonderful book.” The Idiot and Either/Or have finally assumed that shape — but they had to do it together.

A Coming-of-Age Story That Moves at the Speed of Thought