Elif Batuman’s ‘Either/Or’ is endearingly tedious

May 25, 2022, 8:15 p.m.

While attending a pilates lesson, Selin ponders the question of having children. Why does anyone do it? Is it really worth it? Perhaps the point of having kids is to have someone take care of you when you are old. But even in that case, Selin remarks, “I thought I would rather pay a preexisting person to take care of me … rather than creating a whole new person and making them do it for free.”

Elif Batuman’s third book “Either/Or” follows Selin Karadağ, a Turkish American student, through her sophomore year at Harvard College.

Although the novel has a fairly straightforward structure — chapters are segmented based on chronology, initially by the week of the semester, then by month — the writing frequently meanders into strange and unexpected directions. While selecting fall semester courses with Svetlana, Selin abruptly begins pondering Harvard’s organization of academic departments: “Why were the different branches of literature categorized by geography and language, while sciences were categorized by the level of abstraction, or by the size of the object of study? Why wasn’t literature classified by word count? … Why was the history of non-industrial people in anthropology, and not in history? Why were the most important subjects addressed only indirectly? Why was there no department of love?”

Plot-wise, this discussion is undoubtedly pointless — the “arbitrary” way that Harvard departments are organized never comes up again — yet so much of this novel is preoccupied with these seemingly pointless tangents. Batuman’s prose is so focused on small, inconvenient details. When Svetlana and Selin reunite at the start of the school year, Svetlana recounts to her a story about going to a store over the summer and picking up a coin that she had dropped on the floor, only to be struck with horror with the memory of a milk bottle smashing onto those very floor tiles. Svetlana fails to recall crucial facts of this story. (When had she witnessed this incident? Why had she been so horrified by it?)

Batuman lets a bad story remain a bad story; she does not attempt to remedy Svetlana’s lapse of memory with any possible explanations for this mysterious incident. In this way, Batuman avoids overly neat and convenient resolutions. In another writer’s story, this focus on inconvenient details might serve as an attempt to either create a hyper-realistic portrayal of a young college student’s day-to-day — elevating the mundanity of real life — or prove how “relatable” the college-aged characters are (perhaps not so different from the readers themselves!). But in Batuman’s work, I have the sense that the pointlessness of Selin’s stories is, in fact, the point.

Selin is pretentious, but endearingly so. She reads books, obsesses over her classmate Ivan and casts sharp judgments on her friends and classmates. But in her preoccupation with literature and philosophy, I see a struggle to process the uncertainties attached to young adulthood: finding love, understanding one’s friends, trying to answer the question of what to do with the rest of one’s life.

While reading Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s book “Either/Or,” Selin cannot help but relate the events of “The Seducer’s Diary” (one of the three parts of Kierkegaard’s book) to her own complicated situation with Ivan. The titular seducer claims that it had been useful to him that Cordelia, the target of his affections, had suffered in her childhood. Selin wonders, “Had my family background been useful to Ivan?” Months later, after Selin has a phone conversation with Ivan’s ex-girlfriend Zita, she assuages her discomfort over her newfound revelations about Ivan by looking up Zita’s thesis in the Harvard library catalog. Selin feels much better after reading it: “I felt a kind of elevation in my chest, my eyes opened wider, I felt more alive.”

Selin has such immense faith in the ability of literature to allow her to better understand herself. A novel, she muses, must be “a plane where you could finally juxtapose all the different people, mediating between them and weighing their views.”

But Selin’s attempts to reconcile the anxieties and ambiguities in her life with literature fall short. In the summer after her sophomore year, Selin travels to Turkey and has a sexual relationship with Mesut, a local bus station employee. She is left disappointed by the sex and, in true Selin fashion, dissects her disappointment by comparing sex to Shakespeare plays. “Weren’t the two related?” Selin wonders. “Shakespeare said ‘nothing’ and meant a vagina, or said ‘O’ and meant a vagina, or said ‘country matters’ and meant a vagina.” Despite this revelation, Selin fails to develop a better relationship with sex; she unenthusiastically continues her trysts with Mesut.

Selin’s comparison of sex and Shakespeare’s plays takes complicated leaps in logic. After all, novels are no replacement for real life, which cannot be lived through novels. The solace that Selin derives in novels is ultimately a form of entrapment, though she has yet to realize it. Literature reduces her life into metaphor: Ivan is the seducer and Selin is Cordelia, just as sex is not really sex but a Shakespeare play that Selin has yet to learn to appreciate.

Selin’s outlook on literature, while misguided, is refreshing to read. “Either/Or” avoids the loss of innocence or disillusionment in adulthood typical of a bildungsroman. Rather, it’s a novel that subsists on a young writer’s idealism; no matter what happens in her life, Selin’s trust in literature never wavers. The constancy and force of Selin’s conviction in the ability of literature to help elucidate her life is ultimately a conviction that any writer must internalize to keep writing.

Elif Batuman’s “Either/Or” is an endearing portrait of an undergraduate student’s second year in college. Although Batuman’s prose seems at times meandering and overwritten, she succeeds in capturing the tumultuous nature of young adult life. Through tangents on literature, love and philosophy, Selin emerges as a lover of literature, a romantic and an endlessly confused college student.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.

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