Elif Batuman’s latest novel, “Either/Or,” drops you into 1996, where Selin is a second-year Harvard student. As the reader, unsure how you’ve ended up in 1996, you accept that she is now your best friend and is going to tell you every detail about her life — the exciting (her manipulative ex-crush’s ex-girlfriend called her on the phone! She’s going on a solo trip to Turkey!) to the mundane (the required reading for her Russian literature class keeps somehow relating to her life, and she won’t shut up about it). Luckily, Selin is one of those friends whom you love because she can make anything interesting. Or maybe “Either/Or,” which follows a year in her life, is so compelling because of Selin’s insistence on standing up from lines of text and convincing us that she is as real as we are.
“Either/Or” picks up where its predecessor, “The Idiot,” left off — I say “predecessor” and not “prequel” because, while having read “The Idiot” would provide context, “Either/Or” can be understood on its own. In it, we meet back up with Selin, who wants to be a writer but is worried by the contradictory advice on what makes such a pursuit worthwhile. At heart, she feels detached from societal traditions and wants to live an “aesthetic life” — one with “an organizing principle other than … making money or having kids” that prioritizes personal style over history. This concept is presented to Selin in Søren Kierkegaard’s 1843 book, also titled “Either/Or,” as the alternative to living “ethically.” Despite this aspiration, Selin’s actions are, in reality, mostly determined by the institutions and people around her. She also goes for runs when she’s overwhelmed and relates parts of her life to Alanis Morissette songs, making me feel specifically targeted by this book.
Relating to Selin is not necessary, but to dislike spending time with her would be unfortunate. The experience of reading the book, as was the case for its predecessor, “The Idiot,” is not that of being pulled along by a gripping plot, but of talking to your close, existentially troubled friend. What happens in the book? It’s difficult to make it sound half as compelling as it is. Selin goes to college. She makes and talks to various friends, takes classes, sends the occasional desperate/angry/pretentious email to her old crush Ivan, starts going to parties, has sex for the first time (in a scene painful for both Selin and the reader) and goes to Turkey for a summer abroad program. Ordinary as the events of the book appear, it is impossible to turn your back on Selin.
Mostly, she thinks about things. Her conflicts lie within herself, even when they involve other people. She wants to understand love, which she sees as “dangerous, violent, with an element of something repulsive.” Finding romantic love is important, she knows, but she doesn’t completely understand why, and the thrilling parts of her own romantic arc are the realizations that surround it.
Selin’s other concern, and part of what makes her feel especially real compared to an ordinary character, is reclaiming some of the agency she lacks. While not remotely plot-driven, the book isn’t exactly character-driven, either. Selin’s character is central, but her agency generally involves mundane decisions like which classes to take and which people to spend time with. When she decides, for example, to send an angry email to Ivan, it is treated as just another thing that is happening rather than a major twist. Often the repercussions are as short-lived as they would be in real life. Ivan might respond to the email, and Selin will think a lot about it, but then the story will move on, and she might not mention him for another 30 pages and won’t communicate with him for the rest of the book. She tries not only to escape from the expected path, the “ethical life” whose pressures have kept her from truly being free and decisive, but also from the series of plot points that happen to her, as much as resulting from her own choices. Her struggle is the fight we all face to stop letting life carry us in its chosen direction and break away from the natural flow of events.
Batuman has an almost mysterious ability to make us want to read nearly 800 combined pages of ordinary events, Selin’s digressions about various books and the progression of a relationship that never gets past one-sided pining. Even so, “The Idiot,” which takes Selin through her first year of college, feels uncertain of its own purpose. Somewhere midway through this predecessor, an unease descended upon me that I would not discover a point in all of those pages. When Selin felt, at the end, like she had “learned nothing,” I couldn’t help but agree.
Anyone whose readerly joy is derived from a carefully crafted plot with set-up, payoff, devastating twists and intricate connections will be just as infuriated by “Either/Or” as by “The Idiot,” if not more so. However, Selin herself has gained agency and direction, giving the book a more satisfying arc. There were moments when she would go on for too long about a concept in a book she was reading, and my interest snapped, leaving me thinking, “Wait a minute, what happened to that one character who seemed so important? Are you never going to speak to him again?” (The answer was usually no). But those moments were rare. As far as those abandoned characters, Batuman doesn’t care to give them, or most of the “plotlines” (should we call them that), a sense of closure. The satisfaction in the ending comes entirely from seeing Selin change. The frustration at the number of loose ends hanging like ghosts is soothed by the understanding that that’s how life is — details stop mattering, and almost nothing comes to a perfect close.
While Selin’s growth makes “Either/Or” a more satisfying, less worrisome novel than “The Idiot,” Batuman must have done something right from the beginning because I missed Selin as soon as I closed “The Idiot.” I would have read “Either/Or” just to spend time with her again, even if someone told me the ending was terrible. Rarely are characters crafted with this depth — characters who come so completely to life, to reach out to the reader with a hand that bares its own pulse. You read this book to know Selin, to live simultaneously through her and beside her. Opening its pages is entering back into the world you share.
Daily Arts Writer Erin Evans can be reached at email@example.com.