By Elif Batuman
I’m not sure what I think about “Either/Or,” Elif Batuman’s sequel to her 2017 novel “The Idiot.” I’m not entirely sure what I think about “The Idiot,” a Pulitzer Prize finalist, either. Did I like these books? Yes, so much that I felt bereft when I finished them. Batuman’s fiction is immersive and funny. She somehow extracts a meticulous accuracy of expression and high level of thought from an invitingly casual tone and unfussy prose in a way that seems effortless, even inevitable. But, on a conceptual level, these novels also left me itchy, as though I had absorbed the tendency of Batuman’s narrator and autofictional alter ego, Selin Karadag, to overthink things, to get mired in questions and take everything personally.
Don’t read “Either/Or” without reading “The Idiot.” Here is the plot of “The Idiot”: In 1995, Selin, the very tall New Jersey-born daughter of divorced Turkish doctors, embarks on her freshman year at Harvard, during which she develops an obsessive and murkily unrequited crush on Ivan, a senior math major from Hungary she meets in Russian class. At times Selin is cripplingly self-aware and at others frustratingly obtuse. She is charismatic and gregarious but shows little curiosity about other people’s inner lives. She signs up to spend her summer teaching English in a Hungarian village in hopes of getting closer to Ivan. It doesn’t work. “I had learned nothing at all,” the book concludes.
Here is the plot of “Either/Or”: Selin, now a sophomore, is preoccupied by Soren Kierkegaard’s question of how to lead an aesthetic life, as opposed to an ethical one. Selin understands these categories as the difference between devoting oneself to the societally condoned goals of making money and having kids versus freely pursuing self-gratification through love, art and adventure. Selin concludes that “most of the people in the world just didn’t know they were allowed not to have kids. Either that, or they were too unimaginative to think of anything else to do, or too beaten-down to do whatever it was they thought of.” She believes herself destined to be a novelist but is tormented by worry that wanting to write fiction about her own life, as she does, is “childish, egotistical, unartistic and worthy of contempt.” Her friends start getting into relationships; she falls into an Ivan-related depression that is ultimately mitigated by Zoloft; she succeeds in a brief, grimly determined quest to lose her virginity. In the book’s final quarter, Selin travels through Turkey researching a travel guide and has a when-it-rains-it-pours moment of sexual exploration that interests but does not fulfill her.
Before she recruits her first sexual partner, Selin asks: “Could the fact that I hadn’t ‘had’ sex explain why I seemed to myself not to have really learned anything … why everything I did learn felt somehow incomplete and beside the point? Was it sex — ‘having’ sex — that would restore me to my sense of life as a story?”
No, it turns out. The tension between wanting to feel as though she is living a coherent narrative versus her unwillingness to be bound by any script is not easily resolved for Selin. Not much is, really, and her narration is peppered with an abundance of unanswerable questions that suggest an illusory, galaxy-brain-meme kind of depth — but actually function as markers of confusion, her intellect’s attempts to subdue her life into yet another interrogatable text. While making out with someone in a parked car, for example, Selin asks, “Where were we, what did everything mean, why was it like this?” It’s unreasonable to expect a 19-year-old to have all the answers, but was it also unreasonable for me to wish that the novel would do more than replicate Selin’s bewilderment?
In autofiction, bewilderment and shapelessness tend to be part of the point, as the form mimics the myopia of lived experience and the confines of our solitary consciousnesses. The arcs of our lives are not often discernible within the moment; we scramble to perceive and process in real time. “What if,” Selin muses at one point, “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. Afterward, I would write it all down, and I would have written a novel, without having to invent a bunch of fake characters and pretend to care about them.”
Batuman presents this plan of Selin’s with tongue in cheek (especially since, in the next paragraph, Selin, reading André Breton, comments on how boring the autofictional details of other people’s lives can be), but it is part of a larger discussion of how and what fiction should be that is a major preoccupation of Batuman’s and also the heart of my ambivalence.
Batuman has talked extensively on the record about how, for years, both ambient cultural forces and specific people and circumstances discouraged her from writing the fiction that interested her, fiction closely and explicitly derived from her own experiences. I spent four years in writing workshops, an institution that Batuman, during the great M.F.A. v. N.Y.C. debate of the mid-aughts, repeatedly excoriated as a force of nefarious literary homogenization. I remember reading critical pieces of hers that hurt my feelings a little at the time (what was so terrible about taking funding and feedback?), though I think she conflated the influence of the workshop model with what happened to be fashionable at the time in literary magazines and publishing. (Fiction trends, unless they happen to align perfectly with one’s own preferences, always seem to have an element of the emperor’s new clothes to them.) Even back when I was in workshop, more than a decade ago, it wasn’t uncommon for a writer to bring in a piece of highly autobiographical fiction, the kind of fiction Batuman thought was being smothered under the tyranny of hyperspecificity-fetishizing realism. One of the challenges, then, was how to critique a narrative that was inextricable from the writer, who was sitting right there, taking notes. Sometimes the autobiographical part — not the fiction part — seemed like the real shield. Sometimes, too, particularly when novels are fragmentary or heavily autobiographical, the reader’s (or critic’s) impulse is to interpret their limitations — for instance, a perspective that doesn’t go beyond the self, an inability or unwillingness to extend empathy outward — as aesthetic choices for fear of seeming dumb or uncool, childishly wishing for more plot, more meaning, something bigger.
I’ll admit I sometimes wanted “Either/Or” to reach for more, to be a little bigger, to stretch outside the confines of Selin, but, in the end, I’ll read as many books about Selin as Batuman wants to write. It’s all good. Write about yourself or don’t. Join a workshop or don’t. Novels will continue to sprout up in all different forms; trends will come and go and come again, some to one’s taste and others not; some books will last; most will vanish; and people will like what they like, usually without even knowing why.