“In my heart I didn’t see the need for a backpack,” Selin confesses, while preparing for her summer trip to Turkey as a writer for Harvard University’s travel magazine, Let’s Go. It is not the kind of line that many writers would retain through rounds of edits, but that is an essential part of what makes Either/Or delightful. Not only have I also long failed to understand the functional benefits of backpacks, but more importantly, I too, like many of my female friends, readily label such practical judgments as feelings, and trace their location back to the heart.
Either/Or, the sequel to Elif Batuman’s debut novel The Idiot, picks up where the former left off. Selin, starting her sophomore year at Harvard, has recently returned from teaching English in the Hungarian countryside and spending the summer confusedly pursuing Ivan, a Hungarian mathematician and previously a senior at Harvard.
The organisation of the book offers a map of Selin’s emotional states: the first section focuses on the first four weeks of settling in, when Selin obsessively pines over Ivan, who has now moved to Berkeley. In the next section, ‘The Rest of the Fall Semester,’ depression descends as it slowly becomes clear that Ivan was only as special as the next twenty-something man consumed with the need to appear deep and brooding – ie, not at all.
The spring sees Selin repurpose her heartbreak into a push to live a more interesting, intentional life; Selin wants to be a writer, part of her is “always generating a commentary,” and imperative for that, she decides, are novel experiences. She discovers the secret to enjoying parties (getting drunk), at the behest of a friend she skips the security of a bed and breakfast for an impromptu stay with strangers, she resents the pangs of loneliness she feels when her best friend starts dating.
In the summer, she travels to Turkey where her grandmother and well-connected aunts add to the book’s large ensemble of believable, funny characters. Her task is to travel to a bunch of places from a set itinerary and update information about them, but for Selin, it is also a part of the journey of life – a phrase she would probably make fun of, but also confess to seeing some philosophical value in. You can see why she is hard to dislike if you are, or at some point of your life have been, twenty years old.
At the same time, her search for the book – any book – that could guide her about how to be a writer, a human being, a human being who is a writer, continues. Kierkegaard’s Either/Or posits that one could either have an aesthetic life or an ethical one, and this hypothesis runs through Batuman’s Either/Or like a thread that brings together Selin’s many observations.
On encountering it in a bookstore early on in the book, she is ecstatic: “My heart was pounding. There was a book about this?” Hers would be an aesthetic life, she knows, but the politics of aesthetics continually baffle her. She reads the French feminist thinker Hélène Cixous and protests: “I didn’t get it: why did we have to write stuff that was hard to read and didn’t have an ending, just because men were wrong?”
When she reads academic introductions that conduct their business entirely in the language of puzzles, persuading readers that the best way to answer a question is to ask two in response, she is quick to recognise the pattern. “That had probably been written by a professor. I recognised the professors’ characteristic delight at not imparting information.” To her shock, she discovers that her relatives’ advice – that it was better to honest about her feelings than to play games – was actually wrong. To think that it had been corroborated by her reading of Pushkin itself!
The infiniteness and precociousness of youth
Either/Or, like The Idiot, is arranged somewhat as a series of diary entries about Selin’s thoughts, conversations, and everything in between, and this experimentalism is contrasted by the meaningful meditation on the novel as a form, embedded within these entries. “Was that what a novel was: a plane where you could finally juxtapose all the different people, mediating between them and weighing their views?” Selin wonders as her trip to Turkey wraps up.
In The Idiot, Selin appeared to be more an observer than a participant, coolly narrating the endless randomness of college life and deciphering what Ivan really meant. The Selin of Either/Or not only diligently reports the happenings of her daily life, but also dwells on how they make her feel. This can sometimes cause confusion of stand-point: the overwhelming embarrassment of a moment such as a failed sexual encounter is often apparent only in hindsight. Is Selin writing this book when she is older?
But, to Batuman’s immense credit, this illusion of perspective works. In her hands, Selin is able to be vulnerable without being self-pitying, and this ability to contain duality in the relaying of an experience renders the narrative richer. Her description of her first time, for example, is somewhat detached, occasionally funny. The admission of pain, physical and emotional, a few pages later then is devastating: “I had been hurt, and hurt, and hurt, for two hours.”
In its lighter moments, Batuman’s narration is also peppered with instances and thoughts made possible only by the confluence of an elite education with the precociousness of a recently adult someone. When Selin is late to her Pilates class and cannot find a place for her mat among others, she wonders “Where, exactly, did they want me to go? Did they want me to just not exist? Was that how the Israelis and Palestinians felt about each other?”
Either/Or is a sparklingly funny, endearing book, and should be read for Batuman’s triumph in capturing the seeming infiniteness of being young, and the finitude of knowledge without error. At one point, Selin, on the bus with a friend, is chided by an older man for speaking too loudly. With youthful aplomb, she tells him that this was a bus, not a library. Her friend laughs, scandalised. I did, too.
Either/Or, Elif Batuman, Jonathan Cape.