Rather incredibly, it’s been five years since Elif Batuman’s debut novel, The Idiot, first introduced us to Selin, a Turkish-American Harvard freshman obsessed both with literature and with a Hungarian senior called Ivan. In Either/Or, Selin’s back for her sophomore year, but this time without Ivan, who’s headed off to graduate school. So what’s Selin going to do now?
Well, like any other student, she’s going to go to classes and parties, and visit her parents, and worry about summer work-abroad programmes—but, as this is Selin, she’s also going to read a lot and stare quizzically at the world around her while questioning everyone’s life choices, including her own. Or, as she eventually explains: ‘I was going to do the subtle, monstrous thing where you figured out what you were doing, and why.’ She’s got a new set of roommates, and, without Ivan around, the question of sex—who’s having it, why, and with whom Selin might have it, if she has it at all, takes on new urgency. The book is split into four rough sessions: September 1996, the Fall semester, the Spring/Summer semester, and the actual summer which she spends seeing relatives and working, first in Turkey, and then, later, in Moscow.
It’s a long and digressive book, hopping (as does Selin herself) between her literature classes and her social life. And if you read long and digressive and think unfocussed and boring, you would be very wrong: it’s very quick, very funny, very incisive in skewering the way we unthinkingly and conventionally live our lives. The fragmented structure maps perfectly onto the nature of undergraduate life, where textbooks and job-hunts and cafeterias and parents and hook-ups and exes and fancy-dress parties veer in and out of the spotlight, and nobody is too sure exactly what’s really important.
If The Idiot was about love, then Either/Or is about sex—but really, both books are about wondering what the hell is going on with people. Selin, on the face of it, is a serious scholar, deeply concerned with the nature of the relationship between literature and reality. But she’s also unexperienced, easily confused, and worried about fitting in. As the book opens, while she’s pondering the lack of emails from Ivan, she’s also stressing about whether Kierkegaard’s Either/Or or André Breton’s Nadja can help her decide how to live her life. Aesthetically or ethically? Is there a difference? Can literature help her work all this out? And these are good questions, interesting questions, and Selin (that is, Batuman) has the brilliant ability to cut right to the philosophical heart of everything she reads: her summaries of everything from Kierkegaard and Freud, to Ishiguro, Henry James and Rumi are acute and hilarious and thought-provoking. But it doesn’t really help her very much, because books are only part of it: it’s the ongoing mystery of social interactions, and the question of how/if everyone else has it all figured out, that really gets to poor Selin. In Turkey, while fact-checking articles for a Let’s Go guidebook, she is accosted by a young girl demanding Selin acknowledge that the girl’s brother is ‘the most unbelievable handsome and sexy man’ she had ever seen.
‘The brother was standing maybe five feet away. It was like we were in a play and the convention we were observing was that he couldn’t hear anything we were saying. […] ‘You must be right,’ I said, which was my default Turkish response to crazy people. ‘You’re very right’ worked better than ‘You must be right’, but I couldn’t always bring myself to say it. There were cases where it seemed like a violation of the social contract, because didn’t we both know that her brother resembled a potato?’
A few months previously, she’d been invited by her housemate to a BDSM party at Harvard’s literary society.
Some people, like Lakshmi, looked cool or interesting in their sado-masochistic outfits, but most did not. One particularly tedious editor had a plastic ball strapped to his mouth, but kept taking it out to talk, so then he just had this saliva-covered ball hanging around his neck.
So this is a very, very funny book. And as entertaining as Selin’s adventures are (and they are), Batuman, like many a satirist before her, isn’t poking fun at Selin herself, but using her as a way of point out all the contradictions and confusions of everyday life. How do people figure things out? Have I got things figured out? Is Selin doing okay? Ivan was a bastard, right?
Any Cop?: Campus novel fans, book nerds, feminists, philosophy students, you’ll all love this. Me, I want Batuman to follow on with two more instalments, and maybe follow Selin all the way into grad school and beyond.