Either/Or (Book Review)

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Elif Batuman’s 2017 novel The Idiot came out at a great time for me. I had just moved back to the city where I spent my university years from Turkey. I found myself missing the aura of intellectual curiosity that her novel presented perfectly.

In short, it’s a bildungsroman about a Turkish-American freshman at Harvard who finds herself in a confusing friendship with an older, Hungarian student. It’s also a love letter to language, in particular that of second language English speakers, and it brought me much joy.

(I’m not the only one it brought joy to – apparently it was nominated for a Pulitzer!)

I was dimly aware that a sequel was on its way, but the universe set forth a plot to compel me to buy a copy. See, the weather in Seattle was so temperate and lovely for reading in the park in late June, and I happened to be in the park without a book, but suspiciously close to the Elliot Bay Book Company, which just happened to have an autographed copy of Either/Or on the shelf. Resistance was futile.

And yes, I loved this book. It works excellently as a sequel, but also as a standalone work. It follows Selin through her sophomore year (and the following summer) as she grapples with contrasting ideas between living an aesthetic or moral life, learns to start navigating the world of sex, or perhaps, the world of men’s desires.

Like The Idiot it is chock full of great moments, effortless story beats, and ideas discussed between a flurry of realistic characters.

Selin is a fantastic character. Sometimes, people criticize characters for being two-dimensional, but she’s so fleshed out and alive that I’m not sure that she really fits into three dimensions. Certainly not if you’re trying to provide space for her inner life. Her observations are equal parts amusing, insightful, and somehow naive.

Rather than describing them further, let me give you a few excerpts for flavor.

During a sexual encounter:

He didn’t say anything, but once his hands were free again, and he was above me, I felt that his preferred state had been restored. The preferred state was for me not to be fascinated. It was for me not to be thinking about the condom factory, wondering why they called it Trojan when the Trojan horse was a story about permeability, about how the Greeks swarmed out and foiled the Trojans, who had believed themselves to be protected–and in the moment that he pushed me onto my back I realized, with elation, that I could prefer that state, too, that I didn’t need to be thinking about those things. (Pages 238-239)

On writing for a travel guide in Turkey:

I eventually gave up trying to explain anything to anyone. It did no good. Everyone was too afraid. The Turkish people were afraid of missing some “opportunity” represented by the tourists, of being taken advantage of and left with nothing. The tourists were afraid of missing some “authentic” experience, of being exploited for their money and left with nothing. What the tourists really wanted was never to pay for anything, because they were good people. (…) Let’s Go acted like not paying for things wasn’t just advantageous, but noble. Conversely, to “pay the tourist price” wasn’t just to lose money, but to capitulate to panderers: to fail to support the truly deserving and authentic. The way you supported the deserving and authentic was apparently by paying them less. (Page 321)

Can you imagine reading 300+ pages in that voice? It’s a delight!

I think this may be a rare case in which the sequel is better than the original. Batuman’s writing doesn’t just shine, but also shines a light on the events of The Idiot and the machinations of the patriarchy and how it’s perpetuated through literature. It is a wildly compelling marriage of aesthetics and politics, and a great second chance to hang out with (no exaggeration) one of the great characters of contemporary literature.

Thanks for reading!

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