In the final paragraph of “The Idiot,” Selin returned from a summer in Hungary spent obliquely, unsuccessfully pursuing love with Ivan, a mathematician. Her conclusion — “I hadn’t learned anything at all” — was a withering punchline for a book disguised as a bildungsroman. In fact, far from delivering life lessons, the collapse of Selin’s unrealized romance seemed to represent a total breakdown in meaning, and she ended up abandoning her study of linguistics in disgust. In the opening chapters of “Either/Or,” as the stalemate with Ivan continues, she becomes depressed. She cries a lot. Her mother suggests antidepressants. Gradually, stimulated by her reading — and revived by Zoloft — Selin is drawn back into her quest for meaning: for ways both to live and to write fiction.
How, then, to live? Like all liberal arts students, Selin is crowded by books — from Frog and Toad to Freud and Proust — offering different ways of being. For a while, she’s seduced by Kierkegaard’s notion of a choice (from his book “Either/Or”) between an aesthetic and an ethical way of life: between an impulsive, hedonistic experience and one bound by convention and bourgeois morality. Superficially, the philosopher’s work seems to speak to her relationships with both Ivan and her best friend, Svetlana, who, Selin believed, “wanted to be in ‘a stable relationship’ and to someday have children, while I wanted to have interesting love experiences that I could write about.”
“What if I could use the aesthetic life,” Selin asks, “as an algorithm to solve my two biggest problems: how to live, and how to write novels?”
While “The Idiot” was about unrequited love, “Either/Or” explores what meaning might be found (or not) in sex. Selin’s journey involves seeking — or, more often, having thrust upon her — physical encounters with men. The Polish scientist whose name gives her such trouble that she ends up calling him simply “the Count”; fellow student Ham, whose bedroom is filled with toy soldiers; Mesut and Volkan, whom she meets in Turkey while writing for the student travel guide “Let’s Go.” With each man, she’s apprehensive but curious; determined, even when somewhat alienated. Although the book doesn’t shy away from frisky business, Batuman writes distracted, fumbly sex rather than bodice-ripper stuff. “What an amazing thing a neck was,” Selin thinks during a kiss, “the way all the blood in a human body had to pass through it, and how easy that made it to kill someone, and this easiness of killing a man also felt dear and close to my heart.”
“Was it sex — ‘having’ sex — that would restore to me the sense of my life as a story?” Selin wonders. Certainly, she feels it’s necessary to do “the thing that made you not a child.” And it propels the story — if not, perhaps, toward a traditional or satisfying climax. Indeed, the undercurrent of discontent that runs throughout “Either/Or” seems to center on sex and what it putatively offers. What must one conclude, from “rites of passage,” if the physical event is inadequate to the needs of the spirit? “It didn’t immediately resolve or answer any preexisting need or question on my part,” she observes. “It didn’t automatically make sense, as I had expected, given its universal and canonical status. It was, rather, its own super-specific thing, like the taste of some particular kind of wine.”
This not-quite-making-sense perhaps reflects Selin’s choice of partners. Batuman told The New Yorker that she started “Either/Or” during her first nonheterosexual relationship and that she thinks of the finished novel as “a book written from a queer and political consciousness.” This does make sense. Part of what makes Selin such a funny — and refreshing — narrator is the way she bristles at categorizations and binaries. Her discomfort with the inadequacy of language, so much a part of her mildly estranged affect, is pitched almost subliminally at times: she describes “People dressed as waiters” or someone “speaking with a British accent,” indicating perhaps that a single noun (waiter, Brit) is too reductive. At a broader taxonomic level, her suspicion of the way academic subjects are organized (“Why was there no department of love?”) is evidence of her nascent understanding that how we think and behave is more often a product of historical power dynamics than an expression of soul. The pressure she experiences to have sex, and the unreasonable burden of expectation that’s placed on it, is surely a function of these dynamics.
In the closing pages of “Either/Or,” following a sexual tour of Turkey, Selin finds herself unexpectedly on the threshold of revelation. Her experiences begin to realign in her mind; there’s a Proustian “flooding back” or “knitting together” that seems to promise new coherence and meaning to her life. We leave her in a more optimistic place than we did at the end of “The Idiot”; no longer does it seem that nothing has been learned.
But where will she land? Batuman has promised at least “a very short and experimental Selin novella,” if not a full novel about her 30s. Wherever the novelist takes her, it’s delicious to think of Selin discovering the answers to the many questions she asks herself. Chief among them, perhaps: “How would I eventually root out from my mind all the beliefs that I hated?”
Charles Arrowsmith is based in New York and writes about books, films and music.
By Elif Batuman
Penguin Press. 368 pp. $27
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