Who is the titular fool of Elif Batuman’s 2017 novel The Idiot? It’s plainly Selin, the heroine, a goofy kid from New Jersey with a hyperactive mind, freshly matriculated at Harvard. But it’s also Ivan, a classmate from beginning Russian with whom she’s besotted. It’s every friend or acquaintance Selin meets, because the essential qualities of being eighteen, nineteen, twenty—idiocy or just naiveté, a yearning to become—are Batuman’s subject. It’s a testament to her skill that Selin’s intellectual bravado and her attempts at seduction make readers cringe, remembering our own youthful pretensions and ill-fated crushes.
The Idiot follows Selin through her freshman year. Either/Or, Batuman’s new novel, opens at the start of her sophomore year, its first line “It was dark when I got to Cambridge.” It’s a sequel in which we’re right back where we left off: there’s the deadpan voice, the anthropological insight into American college life in the mid-1990s, the catalog of minor humiliations and grandiose thoughts. Either/Or arrives amid a handful of other literary follow-ups: Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House, Andrew Sean Greer’s Less Is Lost, Tom Perrotta’s Tracy Flick Can’t Win. Doubtless some trend reporter is hatching a theory—the pervasive influence of streaming television, which parcels a story out into seasons? Another victory of capital in the sphere of art?
Batuman wants to continue the story of Selin, but she’s up to more. In these pages, Cathleen Schine called The Idiot “a romantic comedy about the romance of language, a metacomic novel of ideas, and an adventure in grammar.”* It’s praise that damns if you overthink it (as Batuman’s heroine surely would): Are ideas enough to make a novel? Either/Or is Batuman’s attempt to prove that they are. Forget “metacomic,” Either/Or is a novel that’s also an academic argument for itself as a novel. The book’s subject is the further adventures of Selin; one of its aims is to litigate just what a novel is, anyway.
The Idiot was Dostoevsky’s title first; Either/Or was Kierkegaard’s, whose book probes something I was unaware was a dichotomy. Selin quotes the jacket copy: “Either, then, one is to live aesthetically or one is to live ethically.” There’s a type of person who would read this and yawn. Not Selin: “My heart was pounding. There was a book about this?” This question is situated early enough in the book that it functions as a mission statement and preoccupies Selin throughout the novel and her sophomore year.
Synopsis is a blunt instrument, or it makes almost everything sound a bore. But for the record: Selin goes to classes and thinks about what her instructors say. She and her friends gossip and boast like every student in every dorm room. Selin continues to try to reach Ivan via e-mail. She takes a part-time job doing office work at the Ukrainian Research Institute. She listens to music, reads books, and then realizes that she is, maybe, depressed. She takes antidepressants. She loses her virginity. She heads to Turkey for summer break, reporting for the travel guide Let’s Go. (Is it still a rite of passage for twentysomethings who do not attend Harvard to cross paths with those who do, just back from a Let’s Go tour of duty and full of stories to tell? Or is that one more thing the Internet has taken from us?) We last see Selin arriving in Russia, where she’ll spend the rest of her holiday. “I had a powerful sense of having escaped something: of having finally stepped outside the script,” she tells us, the novel’s final words.
In genre, it’s bildungsroman; in form, what both Either/Or and The Idiot made me think of was the blog. I do not mean this to sound snide; indeed, it’s fitting for a novel set in the mid-1990s. The voice is intimate and idiosyncratic, the organizing principle diaristic. The aim is not scenes that accrue into story but snapshots with the feel of anecdote, most with the flourish of a punchline. Here’s a brief but representative example (I almost said “post”):
Baudelaire said that walking in a crowd was an art that only poets were capable of. A fairy had to have bestowed something to him in the cradle. That’s why he was able to enter freely into each man’s personality. “For him alone everything is vacant.”
If any poet tried to enter my personality like a vacant building…!
A gag can be a window into character. But for anyone who has spent all of The Idiot in Selin’s company, these jokes can feel familiar instead of revelatory.
As a reader, I don’t need much from plot. A character, growing up, will suffice, but those who feel otherwise are forewarned: time’s passage is the primary action in Either/Or. At first each chapter covers a week, then things pick up and each contains a whole month. This lopsided treatment reflects how youth feels, in my memory anyway—an endless, formless waiting period. The first-person perspective means that we can see only what Selin does; if some of the characters around her seem merely names, perhaps this is an effective way of establishing the egocentrism of adolescence.
We are not focused on a single concern (Selin’s academic work, or her romantic life, or her relationships with friends and family) but the larger drama of being. The book weaves together vignettes, some so brief they’re almost poetic, that show us Selin the student, Selin the romantic, Selin the friend, Selin the daughter—scenes punctuated by jokes, ruminations on books or albums or whatever is on her mind. We spend our youth hoping something exciting will happen to us, but growth, development, and change are mostly beneath our notice, unfolding in the boring stretch of the everyday. Either/Or feels faithful to the experience of growing up; whether we want fiction to depict reality accurately is a separate matter.
Early in the book, Selin and her friend Svetlana pore over the course catalog, which causes them to question the entire enterprise of liberal arts education:
Why did religion have its own department, instead of going into philosophy or anthropology? What made something a religion and not a philosophy? 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?
Selin likens the scene to From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the immortal children’s novel in which a young girl outsmarts everyone by knowing what questions to ask, how to seek their answers in those mixed-up file cabinets. It’s a telling reference. Batuman is writing about children because, for the most part, the privileged sort who attend elite American colleges remain fundamentally that, parrying with Kierkegaard and rehearsing adulthood by going to parties and trying to have sex with each other. And she’s writing about children who believe that life’s answers can be found via rigorous research.
Readers use fiction as a looking glass. It’s not fair to fact-check a novel against your own experience, but it’s a human impulse, even for Selin. At the end of Either/Or, she picks up Henry James:
I couldn’t believe how relevant and applicable The Portrait of a Lady was to my life…. The main character, Isabel, was my age, American, and lively. Only some people thought she was beautiful. The work of art she was creating was her own character: how she acted, how she was, how other people saw her. From this perspective, the aesthetic wasn’t really the opposite of the ethical.
Isabel Archer is a touchstone for Selin; Selin reflects my younger self in a similar way. We are roughly the same age. While I didn’t go to Harvard, Oberlin students have their own flavor of insufferable. The music that matters to her—Fiona Apple, the Fugees, R.E.M.—was in heavy rotation in my dorm. I remember the novelty of e-mail before it was all sales at J. Crew or pleas from Nancy Pelosi. My college boyfriend and I exchanged long missives about nothing in particular, which we wrote as blank verse, no time for punctuation or capital letters, so urgent was whatever we had to say. (This record is mercifully lost.)
But I paused when Selin admits, in The Idiot, “I read Ivan’s messages over and over, thinking about what they meant. I felt ashamed, but why?” She has little reason to feel thus, given how chaste the whole relationship—indeed the whole book—is. This aspect of Batuman’s first novel puzzled me. It’s a convention in Shakespeare or Austen, golden age Hollywood or modern sitcoms, for the chatting and bickering of would-be lovers to have the frisson of sex. In The Idiot, Ivan and Selin seem barely to possess bodies. The two ride his motorcycle out to Walden Pond for a dip, and she’s reluctant to hold on to him as he drives:
He was wearing a floppy dark orange shirt that I had often seen, without ever having thought that I might someday touch it. I placed my arms lightly around his waist, trying to minimize actual contact. The idea of holding on to him felt unthinkable and wrong, like picking up a wild animal.
When I was roughly fourteen to twenty-two, the idea of holding on to another boy’s body was not unthinkable but indeed the only thing I thought about.
At the start of Either/Or Selin casts back to the previous year and the previous novel:
I daydreamed about Ivan all the time, imagining different conversations we might have, how he might look at me, touch my hair, kiss me. But I never thought about having sex. What I knew about “having sex” didn’t correspond to anything I wanted or had felt.
From this she extrapolates, at last, to her body. She thinks of her difficulty using tampons: “I was pretty sure that a guy—that Ivan—would be bigger than a tampon. But at that point my brain stopped being able to entertain it, it became unthinkable.” Selin’s trepidation is understandable, and poignant—sex can be baffling and frightening to the virgin. This revelation helps us see Selin more clearly, but it’s a clarity that belongs in the first book, not the second. The Selin of The Idiot seems either asexual or childish; Either/Or revises her into someone mature enough to grapple with sex.
Maybe it’s peer pressure, once her friends begin having sexual lives of their own. “It occurred to me, not for the first time, how much simpler our lives would be if we could date each other,” Selin tells us of Svetlana. This doesn’t seem to be about actual attraction but the deep if resolutely platonic friendships that are a hallmark of youth. The sex act still seems to baffle Selin, who cannot, of course, resist a joke:
What else did lesbians even do? Other than oral sex, which was apparently horrible. The way people talked about it on sit-coms: “Does he like…deep-sea diving?” You had to be altruistic to do it—a generous lover.
That said, oral sex with a boy also seemed likely to be disgusting. Guys themselves seemed to think so. Wasn’t that why they went around yelling “cocksucker” at people who cut them off in traffic?
Selin understands sex as “the thing that made your childhood finally end.” She meets a friend of a friend at a party. They fall into bed: “Then he moved his hand farther back and did something that made me freeze with pain and terror, and I realized that, as often happened, all my thinking had been beside the point.” After this encounter, she sends the man an e-mail, asking him to take her virginity. They schedule an assignation in his room, a scene that is at first cringe-inducing and then harrowing: “I saw blood on the condom. That made me feel reassured. So something was finally happening.”
That summer, in Turkey, Selin has sex with Mesut, a man who drives her to one of the destinations she’s researching. “I was starting to get the feeling that the in-and-out motion was sex—that there wasn’t anything else after that,” she says. She thinks of what she’s seen in movies. “When someone was being raped, you just saw the man’s jabbing butt. OK: now I knew what was happening on the other side.”
Later Selin meets another Turk, called Volkan: “Finally, to shut him up, I said we could do anal sex. He used sunscreen as a lubricant. When I told him it burned, he almost died laughing. He didn’t want to stop, but then I kicked him.” Batuman can be so funny that it’s possible not to notice that Selin’s sexual awakening contains “pain and terror,” blood, an identification with the victims of rape. Indeed, an act that requires you to physically repel a partner is one of rape. Maybe it’s not just the jokes that blunt the force of what we’re reading; maybe we take it on faith that a young woman’s sexual initiation will involve pain. Maybe that fact isn’t funny at all.
Either/Or has an appendix, a strange gambit for a novel, and it contains this:
Although it isn’t directly quoted, I would also like to cite Adrienne Rich’s 1980 essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” which I first read in 2017, and which enabled me 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”). One goal of this book was to dramatize those forces.
It’s a startling admission, one you’ll miss if you skipped the “Note on Sources” at the end of the book. (I usually do, which might be why I didn’t go to Harvard.) Maybe that business about wanting to date Svetlana is the kind of joke that contains a germ of something else. Maybe Batuman intends to tease out the ramifications of this—a lesbian existence—in a subsequent volume of Selin’s adventures. I can’t help feeling it’s a bit of a cheat, a way of pointing the reader to the author’s intentions, which the novel itself ought to make clear.
Batuman is a very funny writer, and funny writing strikes me as the height of intelligence. Selin would agree. “Was every smart person funny?” she wonders at the start of Either/Or. “I thought humorlessness was the essence of stupidity.” Fair. But the humor here is so insistent, it’s almost a tic. Is it born of a desire to demonstrate the narrator’s intelligence, or, worse, does it expose you as stupid if you start to get tired of it?
The novel form is so elastic that its defining feature may be an author’s assertion that the text is one. That’s good enough for me. But Batuman seems nervous that a reader will challenge this claim, and answers it preemptively. In Either/Or, Selin reflects on her high school creative writing class:
It turned out that writing what you were already thinking about wasn’t creative, or even writing. It was “navel-gazing.” To be obsessed by your own life experience was childish, egotistical, unartistic, and worthy of contempt.
It makes sense that Selin would be taught, in a 1990s high school classroom, that self-examination does not meet the bar of art. But Batuman is winking to show she’s aware she is writing a novel about a woman much like herself. Defending herself against a claim no serious reader would make seems a little touchy.
Then Selin offers, as a counterexample, two works by Kazuo Ishiguro:
How compact, self-contained, and mysterious they were; how little they disclosed of him, whoever he was, an English-language writer with the name “Kazuo Ishiguro.”… Ishiguro wrote first-person, but the narrator was always “unreliable,” i.e., crazy or ignorant, and different from the author. What discipline—what lack of pride!
There’s something disingenuous about roping Ishiguro into this. His characters may seem different from him, but that is a feint. Every writer has only the self—their lives, their reading, their observations, their imagination—from which to draw. Ishiguro may ascribe this material to a stoic English butler; Ben Lerner may ascribe it to a character named Ben; you get the point. Ishiguro’s work isn’t great because it seems to extend beyond the self any more than Batuman’s suffers for its lack of interest in doing so.
It’s ironic that of all the books cited in Either/Or, it’s not a work of philosophy that sets Selin afire, but one of the greatest novels in English. When she’s reading The Portrait of a Lady, Selin wonders why James wrote about Isabel Archer instead of himself: “I was pretty sure I had read that he was gay. Probably being gay had been illegal, and he had been ashamed. So his problem, like Isabel’s, was that he had been born too soon.”
Sometimes we’re laughing with Selin, sometimes we’re laughing at her. Other times, like here, the attempt at a joke feels tiring. I’m not sure this is what a Harvard kid would think, and the detail seems to be included because it will prove resonant when we get to volume 3 of Selin’s adventures, at which point, perhaps, she’ll be gay, and not ashamed. The very question affirms that Isabel Archer might be an avatar for the author, that the good old-fashioned novel might be a very useful device for bringing ideas to life.
Either/Or doesn’t bother with this transubstantiation. It grapples with ideas directly—like why women come to unhappy ends in novels:
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.
This is a coy way of saying that’s what Batuman has done. I love the gumption—putting your own work beside Henry James!—even if the comparison doesn’t feel right.
James is meticulous, his novel a complex machine delving into psyche and social forces (to say nothing of describing rooms and landscapes). He is invested in the endeavor of giving readers what they want—a story. Either/Or is a portrait of a lady, one readers must assemble from snippets and jokes. The novel’s emotional impact relies on the reader’s distance from her own youth; we understand that time’s passage is inevitable and hope it will be kind to Selin. We don’t truly see her change on the page but trust that she’ll grow up, because we did. That was never quite enough for me.
It’s a further irony that Portrait is the novel that galvanizes Selin, helping her see she can, in fact, be a writer, despite having learned in high school that “I wasn’t good at creative writing. I was good at grammar and arguing, at remembering things people said, and at making stressful situations seem funny.” These are, of course, Batuman’s own strengths as a writer. Either/Or engages with argument the way a student paper might:
“A feminine textual body is recognized by the fact that it is always endless, without ending: there’s no closure, it doesn’t stop, and it’s this that very often makes the feminine text difficult to read,” wrote Hélène Cixous, in a sentence that could definitely have been shorter. I didn’t get it: why did we have to write stuff that was hard to read and didn’t have an ending, just because men were wrong?
Far be it from me to disagree with Cixous. Maybe, in fact, my desire for closure, for a text less difficult to read, is just the patriarchy at work.
A certain reader—an alumnus of Harvard or Oberlin, Sarah Lawrence or Stanford, particularly one who was an undergrad between Clinton’s inauguration and 9/11—will identify with Selin. You’ll be charmed if you, like Selin, read too many books as a kid, were the sort of nineteen-year-old who fretted at a party, unsure what to do, or ever nursed a crush on some blowhard boy. I could be describing myself, though, and reading Either/Or I was at times bored. The experiment of these novels shows that I, at least, require more than recognition in a novel.
Selin, adept arguer, has an answer to this, too: “Maybe that was what was so wonderful about Chekhov: how he was, in a wonderful way, boring.” Perhaps that’s a virtue. After all, as a friend of Selin’s says, even Proust is a slog, “so boring that she could hear her own hair grow.” This is a characteristically good gag at Proust’s expense, even if he’s still a genius. I cannot deny that Batuman is a confident litigator. Her novels anticipate whatever criticism I might offer. And though I laughed a lot while reading, I worry even now that I’m missing part of the joke. Maybe I’m the idiot.