by Elif Batuman.
Cape, 360 pp., £16.99, May, 978 1 78733 386 4
Show More
Show More

The games​ start on the first page. Either/Or, the sequel to Elif Batuman’s campus novel, The Idiot (2017), begins where the first book left off, with Selin, now aged nineteen, arriving at Harvard for her second year at university. It’s September 1996. We last saw her in August, on holiday in Turkey with her mother, aunts and cousins. She was having a bad time, ‘living pointless, shapeless days’. She’d been scooped up by family, sucked back into childhood, and had fallen out of the plot of her own life. Nothing had happened in the love story or the becoming-an-author story that she had tried to bring into being in her first year away from home. Her sentimental education, as well as her ambitions to be a linguistics major, had failed: ‘I hadn’t learned anything at all.’

Now here she is again:

It was dark when I got to Cambridge. I pulled my mother’s suitcase over the cobblestones toward the river. Riley had been really mad when we were assigned to Mather, and not to one of the historic ivy-covered brick buildings where young men had lived in ancient times with their servants. But I wasn’t into history.

It’s the same Selin: naive, optimistic, sincere, still intent on ‘being a writer’, still privileging beauty over truth and still expecting something from Ivan, the maths graduate she’s fallen for, despite ample evidence that he’s never going to give it. Nothing has happened in Selin’s life in the gap between books one and two. But in the five years since The Idiot was published (and the twenty since it was drafted) an awful lot has happened in Elif Batuman’s life, and in ours. Pandemics, for example, the Trump presidency, #MeToo, exit from Afghanistan and war in Ukraine; and for Batuman personally, as she put it in a recent interview, those five years chart the process of coming to terms with her queer identity in her late thirties. Selin isn’t into history, but history happens anyway, and the challenge for Batuman is how to get it into a novel about a young woman who is only interested in books as the key to the meaning of life.

Novels beget other novels – an axiomatic truth for Batuman, and maybe beautiful too. In her collection of essays about Russian literature, The Possessed (2010), she explained why, despite her ambition to be a novelist, she chose to get in training by studying for a PhD in literature rather than joining an artists’ colony in Cape Cod. The answer, like a lot of things in Batuman’s writing, has to do with love. Why wouldn’t you want to immerse yourself in literature if it’s what you love and want to make more of? She steers away from learning the craft of writing (‘What did craft ever try to say about the world, the human condition or the search for meaning?’), and by the end of seven years studying the plots of European novels from Cervantes to Pushkin to Tolstoy to Proust to Henry James, she is more sure than ever that the truth about the human condition lies in books:

I no longer believed that novels should or could be inspired only by life, and not by other novels. I knew now that this belief was itself a novelistic device – that it was precisely the European novel tradition, after Don Quixote, that gave rise to the idea of the falseness and sterility of literature, its disconnect with real life and real education.

Most of the novelists Batuman studied for her PhD turn up in Either/Or, alongside the contents of a dedicated sophomore’s bookshelf: Huysmans’s À Rebours, André Breton’s Nadja, The Sorrows of Young Werther and (inevitably) Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. Her reading list offers different kinds of clues to what she’s up to. Early on she attends a lecture on ‘Virginia Woolf and Time’, and a little flag is raised to remind us that the novel we are reading is also playing with the idea that there is one kind of time ‘that could be measured by clocks and another kind’. She launches into a disquisition on how boring it is when authors – Proust, for example – go on endlessly about their childhoods, and then goes on about her own. She reads The Portrait of a Lady and wonders about the difference between biography and autobiography, and why novels have to be about other people’s lives, not the writer’s own. (‘Isabel, who had had the experiences, hadn’t written a book; Henry James, who had written the book, hadn’t had the experiences. He had had different experiences, and those, for some reason, he hadn’t written about.’) This is the novelist as diligent student, showing her workings. But one thing that is going on in these passages is that Batuman is insisting on the collaborative nature of writing. Writing always happens in the shadow of reading and only an absolute idiot would try to deny it.

Selin is not that kind of idiot. She knows she has to study books to work out how to write them. And writing them is the point of just about everything. It’s hard to know how seriously to take the weird novelist destiny Selin is convinced she must fulfil. In a novel where almost every aspect of the story is in doubt (and especially whatever is going on in the minds of boys), no one in the world of the story questions the fact that Selin is a writer, even though she hasn’t written anything yet. ‘Don’t put this in your novel!’ her mother cries whenever she does something of which unknown future readers might disapprove, like unbuckling her seatbelt while driving.

Selin’s naive faith in writing as her vocation seems to be part of her idiocy, but is it? After all, we are reading the novel that results from that faith. Nonetheless, she has a problem. She wants to be a writer, indeed she believes that she already is one, but she hasn’t yet had any experiences to write about. She’s stuck in novelist childhood. The echo of Proust is explicit:

Since I wished, some day, to become a writer, it was time I knew what I was going to write. But as soon as I asked myself the question, trying to find some subject … my mind would cease to function, my consciousness would be faced with a blank.

Selin’s problem, like Marcel’s, is how to have a life worth writing. In The Idiot it was obvious to 18-year-old Selin that in order to turn your life into a story you needed love, or at the very least a love-object. Ivan, the Hungarian maths major, became the material of her book as well as her life, by providing drama (something needs to happen in novels), and a recognisable shape for it to happen in: the romance plot. The wonderful thing about a romance plot is that it moves forward, redeeming pointless, shapeless days with purpose, or at least a beginning, middle and end.

Selin’s desire for a story that can give meaning to her experience is her life drive. Nothing gets in its way, despite the inadequacy of the love-object. When we meet her at the beginning of Either/Or this drive is still propelling her on. It fails – following a gruesomely realistic horror-show encounter with one of Ivan’s exes: ‘Zita said she wanted to help me. She wanted to help me understand. To help me understand, Zita told me the story of her relationship with Ivan.’ Selin realises that there were many more women in her love story than she had imagined and that, far from being a main character, she was simply part of a series. She falls out of time, out of anything having a beginning and a middle, though it has plenty of end. ‘I could hear the creaking sound behind my eyes that meant tears were forming’; ‘My mother said I didn’t seem well. In fact, tears were streaming down my face. “I’m fine,” I assured her. “It’s not related to anything.” I had a belief that I had always cried this much.’ Batuman’s detached and airy account of Selin’s melancholy, closing round her like curtains at the end of a play, is one of the most convincing fictional descriptions of overwhelming despair I have read.

All she wants is to be unconscious. She longs for the cover of darkness: ‘At least one was vouchsafed that dignity: the passage from day to night, the illumination of the headlights that made human affairs resemble, to some slight extent, the cosmological formations that didn’t have feelings or experience disgrace.’ She makes excuses to avoid people, and especially parties, and retreats to her bed:

In only an hour, it would be a legitimate time to go to sleep. I could read in bed. I brushed my teeth and climbed into the top bunk and picked up Swann’s Way.

‘For a long time I went to bed early.’ My eyes filled, I couldn’t see, I couldn’t breathe. For a long time?

Selin looks for instruction in novels as though they were manuals, like Let’s Go, the student travel guide she ends up fact-checking in Turkey in the final section of the novel: how comforting to know that ‘the truth was something that really could be verified and put in a book.’ Her task is to work out which stories are relevant to her life, and how to implement their teachings. In a creative writing class she reads Isaac Babel’s ‘My First Goose’, a story about an intellectual who is sent to join a Cossack military regiment apparently full of men making fart jokes, and she remembers high school: ‘There were many things I could relate to in the story. I had spent a lot of my formative years trying to concentrate on what I was reading, while surrounded by blond boys with amazing faces who were farting at me.’ She reads ‘The Seducer’s Diary’ in Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, the story of a young man who gaslights, ruins and finally abandons a girl called Cordelia. Cordelia, she learns, lived for a time with an aunt: ‘It occurred to me that I, too, had once lived alone with my paternal aunt, for a couple of months during the custody suit.’ The applicability of ‘The Seducer’s Diary’ to her own unfolding story is backed up by other seduction narratives, in particular Breton’s Nadja and Martin Amis’s The Rachel Papers: both are stories about men getting bored with young girls, whom they begin to find ugly. For Kierkegaard’s seducer, it’s women’s post-abandonment ‘tears and prayers’ that are disgusting, and in the case of Amis’s Rachel it’s the fact that she has a pimple on her nose and misquotes Tennyson:

I reread the passage, trying to identify where Rachel had made her mistake. Definitely she shouldn’t have used concealer: it looked worse and it clogged your pores …

I tried to summarise my takeaways. ‘The curse is come upon me’; avoid concealer; be the writer.

And here she is, Selin/Elif, the writer. Being the writer is what living in the future of all those novels has made possible. She doesn’t have to wait around for someone to author her. She can author herself. There are moments when Selin’s literalist confusion between characters in fiction and in life is sublime. Here she tries to work out where Isabel and Tatiana had gone wrong:

But had they definitely gone wrong? Hadn’t their lives been great, in a way, furnishing the plots of great books? And yet … what good had that done them? They hadn’t known that their lives were actually the plot of The Portrait of a Lady or Eugene Onegin. If they had, they could have written the books themselves.

I wasn’t dumb or banal, and I lived in the future. Nobody was going to trick me into marrying some loser, and even if they did, I would write the goddamn book myself.

One of the pleasures afforded by Either/Or is that of watching misogynistic portraits of women being taken apart. Another source of readerly satisfaction is the tale of a clever, gawky young woman, mistreated and misunderstood, finding her own way to tell her story – rather like the plot of Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women, in which Jo March rejects romance to become the writer Louisa May Alcott. But Batuman is just teasing us. That isn’t the story here. Selin’s confidence in being able to author herself is worryingly akin to her fellow students’ boundless, all-American faith in their own perfectibility. It’s what a Harvard education is for, whether it leads to fulfilment through the right career or the right partner (and preferably both) or, as it does for Ivan’s over-sharing ex, to a Buddhist monastery in Thailand where she can discover her true self.

All Selin’s classmates have bought in metaphorically, as their parents have bought in literally, to the optimism of the American education system. A childhood in America, even if you have Turkish parents, gives you the kind of innocence that promises a great and individual life story. You can become who you want to be. But not in this novel. It is a sign of Batuman’s extraordinary control of the narrative voice – tightroping the gap between Selin then and Elif now – that while Selin’s faith never wavers, and after all we have the book in our hands to prove her right, everything else that happens in the novel proves her wrong.

A third of the way through Either/Or, Selin realises she has been investing her energy in the wrong genre: the romance plot wasn’t the right plot. She can’t help noticing that as her classmates pair off into couples, their lives get a lot duller. And anyway, boys aren’t interested in her. But if she’s going to turn her life into a story she needs a storyline. In a class on ‘Chance’ (the occasion for reading Kierkegaard and Breton) she encounters the idea that the contingent mess of everyday experience can be given shape and meaning by treating random occurrences as messages and signs. You don’t need to invest in a single narrative thread that will give coherence to your shapeless days. Living an ‘aesthetic life’, embracing chance, is a way of turning doubt into certainty, contingency into purpose, and it delights Selin:

What if I could use the aesthetic life as an algorithm to solve my two biggest problems: how to live, and how to write novels? In any real-life situation, I would pretend I was in a novel, and then do whatever I would want the person in the novel to do. Afterwards, I would write it all down, and I would have written a novel, without having had to invent a bunch of fake characters and pretend to care about them.

Thejoke – and it is a dark one – is that the books on which she models her experiences (the random-seducer-abandoner genre) are those that render her experience invisible.

In its simplest form, the aesthetic life involved seducing and abandoning young girls and making them go crazy. This was what I had learned from books. There was a problem of application: what did you do if you were a young girl. Nadja had been a girl, and had tried to live an aesthetic life. That had involved her being seduced and abandoned and going crazy. But that had been then. What were you supposed to do now: seduce and abandon men? Was that what feminism had made possible? Something about the idea didn’t feel aesthetic. Just think of the angry, complaining men. Maybe you, too, were supposed to be seducing and abandoning young girls: was that what feminism had made possible? But what would you do with the young girls? And wouldn’t it put you in a losing competition against men?

In fact the joke is darker still. The novel keeps playing with the chicken-and-egg question of whether the rules we live by begin in books or in life (one thing she gets from Breton is a wonderful phrase praising books that are ‘left ajar’, open to the fuzzy boundary between life and writing). But if, as a young woman, you choose to say yes to whatever happens to you, you’re going to end up in some pretty dangerous situations. Selin is in a bind. If she wants to be both author and hero, if she’s only got herself (unlike Henry James, who makes up Isabel to have the experiences), then she’s got to make things happen to her.

The alternative to being the seducer is obviously to be the girl. ‘Was it sex – “having” sex – that would restore to me the sense of my life as a story?’ At least, she figures, it will get her out of childhood, where she seems to have stalled. Her reasoning is impeccable:

The more I thought about it, the less I understood why the duration of my current condition – this indignity and stuckness, the feeling of being somehow tied to Ivan – should depend on my ability to find some doofus who would tell me I was special. I already knew I was special. So what did I need the doofus for?

Insofar as this guy, whose hand was now completely inside my underwear, touching me in a way that was contiguous with, yet different from – more agitating, more erratic than – the way I touched myself, I had lost my train of thought. Where was I? OK: insofar as he didn’t seem to think I was special, and seemed to be engaging with me only as a girl, as a woman, as a member of the category he pursued because of what he was – it felt euphoric and freeing, it was one of the most exciting things that had ever happened to me.

The novel could have been called The Seduced’s Diary, or maybe What Cordelia Did Next. Given that in real life as well as in books, the men she meets seem mainly interested in getting laid, putting yourself in the hands of chance is going to mean an awful lot of casual sex. It’s a compound algorithm. Her first kiss doesn’t happen until page 200, but before the end of the summer she’s dealing with the tongues of two different men on the same page. ‘It did start to feel less pointless, the more you did it.’ She goes to school in sex and is just as diligent about her learning as in any other classroom. She speculates about how they get KY jelly into the tubes, about how erections have different expressions, about the Trojan condom factory and why they were called Trojan when ‘the Trojan horse was a story about permeability’, about ‘what even was fake?’ when it came to orgasms, about the way sexual pleasure is like the pleasure to be had from listening to classical music. Batuman writes brilliantly about what it is like to be inside a body newly being touched, and touching. Even though novels aren’t actually guidebooks, it does feel like the truth is being verified and put in a book. She could have called it Sex Education.

At one point I became so frightened for Selin – that all her innocence and faith in her own story was about to be brutally destroyed – I had to lie the book face down and go to bed rather than read on. I thought I might be able to face it better in the morning. Disaster didn’t actually strike at that point – or rather it didn’t appear to Selin that it had struck. The genius of the narrative voice is that Selin’s trust in the experiences she’s having doesn’t waver, however grim those experiences turn out to be. She’s like an uninitiated child narrator, unwittingly revealing the true horror of grown-up sexual relationships, except that she’s just turned nineteen and she’s started having grown-up sex. She doesn’t really understand how awful it is.

Here she is on a man who accosts her in Turkey (one of many) and from whom she cannot extricate herself:

One the one hand, I wasn’t bored, and we were having sex every day. It was a relief to feel that I wasn’t leading a sterile, life-denying existence, only learning the things that were in books, ignorant of the real world. My complexion looked better than it had at school.

But after three days, it was too much; I realised I would rather be sterile and have dull skin and live in peace.

She escapes by locking skin-enhancing-sex-guy in the hotel room and going to the bus station while he is asleep; this doesn’t work since the bus station man won’t sell her a ticket. She tries to get away from another insistent, proprietorial man by asking for help in the pharmacy where she has gone to buy condoms, like asking for ‘Angela’ behind the bar in a pub. But there are no date-danger emergency codes in 1990s Turkey. The pharmacist isn’t interested, or doesn’t care. There is no telephone, no other exit from the shop, no escape. Selin has to lock herself in the bathroom. Through it all, her earnest, indeed fatalist, desire to learn how to behave doesn’t falter:

It was on a deserted beach. When we got there, he wanted to have sex. Why did this keep happening? It was weird that there were only two options: yes or no. Which was active, which was passive? What would I want to happen in a book? What was it that it said in that one particular book? ‘Only connect’?

Something about this deadpan style seems to have foxed Batuman’s readers. She doesn’t underplay the intimidation and threat of violence. She gives us blood on a pillow printed with a skull, handcuffs, blood running down her leg and pooling in her shoe days after sex. Selin’s undaunted optimism may be the reason that many of the reviews I’ve read pass over the grim sexual adventures, the rapey bits, the harassy bits, the intimidation and imprisony bits, as though they are ‘normal’. For Selin, given the culture she’s grown up in, they are normal. But that’s the problem.

Adrienne Rich’s ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’ (1980) is one of the works that inspired this novel. It’s an essay in which Rich explores the ‘bias’ created by heterosexual social norms, which place lesbian experience ‘on a scale ranging from deviant to abhorrent’, or simply render it invisible. As Batuman explains in a footnote, the essay enabled her ‘to reconstruct some of the heteronormative forces that operated on me in the 1990s (preventing me from being attracted, at that time, to texts with titles like “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”).’ According to Either/Or, there were no lesbians hazarding their chances in competition with the men at Harvard in the mid-1990s, though Selin knows of one or two who go to women’s colleges. (It’s not clear whether she is exaggerating for comic effect.) In several recent interviews Batuman has expanded on this, arguing that in 1990s Harvard concepts such as patriarchy were not ‘in the mainstream’, and that – unlike today – it was a ‘toxic time’ when ongoing feminist political struggles were not ‘common knowledge’.

Iadmit​ I’ve had to fight back my irritation. All those women’s groups, feminist reading groups, feminist theory courses. All that energy spent. There were so many of us doing that work both as students and as teachers in the 1980s and 1990s. We were reading (and arguing with) Chodorow and Dworkin and Rubin and Rich and Butler as well as all those women writing in French. There may have been a backlash against feminism in the 1990s but there were also books about it called things like Backlash. When Batuman says she didn’t take any feminist courses because she ‘wasn’t curious’, I want to yell: so it was your own fault! We were there! Why did you ignore us!

But there is no point being piqued because she didn’t get it. The novel is an account of exactly why she ignored the feminists around her, why, in effect, she couldn’t see them. A staying-in story, written by someone who has recently come out. It’s a portrait of a young woman interpreting the rules, and by definition the rules are mainstream, heteronormative rules. It’s a restaging of a sort of wilful ignorance, and even lack of curiosity, made possible, she suggests, by a canon of literary and philosophical works that are a barrier to thinking otherwise.

I get it, and I think it works, but something still niggles. It has to do with that idea of the mainstream. Batuman’s mainstream is different from Adrienne Rich’s. It is much more explicitly tied to the market, for which all those hopeful Harvard graduates, including Selin, are being prepared. One of Selin’s major difficulties, as she sees it, is how to be interesting. First she worries about how to be interesting to boys; then she figures that if she leads a different sort of interesting life, full of exciting things that make her feel euphoric and free, she’ll be able to write an interesting book. This was her concern in The Idiot too:

Even though I had a deep conviction that I was good at writing, and that in some way I already was a writer, this conviction was completely independent of my ever having written anything, or being able to imagine even writing anything, that I thought anyone would like to read.

All along (just like her mother) she has worried about her readers. Even while Selin is congratulating herself for having been born in the future (unlike Henry James, for example, who was ‘born too soon’ for his readers, and couldn’t write about being gay), she’s also been worrying about what the future will think of her. Since she’s intending to write about her own experiences, she needs to make sure to get them right while she’s actually having them, not later, when she’s writing them. But who can know what anyone in the future is going to find interesting? Who can know that in the future they will be like Henry James in the past, also not writing about being gay?

My experience of reading Either/Or has been that, whatever you may be thinking, Batuman is always three or four steps ahead of you, not only on gender politics, but on history (the war in Ukraine worms in, unbelievably), American imperialism, orientalist tourists, the very different ways in which Ivy League undergraduates and Turkish hostel workers get to be ‘special’ – you name it. And she may well be several steps ahead on this, too. Nonetheless. In a recent interview Batuman explained that she had been careful to consider the way her book’s sexual politics would read to today’s 19-year-olds, for whom, after all, the concept of patriarchy is omnipresent, on every T-shirt. This pre-publication screening was not so much, I think, because any of these gender literate youths might be tempted to read the novel as a guidebook, but because they might object, or might not get it. Why not future-proof your novel by checking it out with Gen Z if you can?

In the world of the novel the idea that novels may do harm – because they are believed in too much – is a source of comedy and horror. But in the world of the world? The fiction of Batuman’s fiction is that novels are dangerous because people like Selin read them as a guide to the future. But as Batuman (and her novel) know full well, fictions offer a way for both writers and readers to understand their pasts, not their futures. How we got here, not where we are going. That means there is no way to future-proof them – it also means we shouldn’t want to.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences