by Elif Batuman

Published 2022 368 pages

Content warning for references to sexual assault below.

All of the things that made The Idiot great are here too. Batuman's curious, naïve, slightly sarcastic observational style is undiminished, and her ability to make comments that cut directly to the heart of a feeling, an issue, a motif from her (or your!) past, continue to be on full display, like on love in high school:

That whole time, six years, I had always been in love with someone. It was the only thing that made it feasible to live that way, getting up at six and remaining conscious until late at night. It was like religion had been, for medieval people. It gave you the energy to face a life of injustice, powerlessness, and drudgery.

Hey, I felt like that too!

However, I have some comments.

I don't remember whether Selin, the author's narrative stand-in, posed quite as many questions in The Idiot as she does here. (My copy of The Idiot has long been returned to the library, so I can't check.) In Either/Or, at any rate, Selin employs and re-employs a rhetorical formula that reoccurs every few pages: a) something happens, b) Selin makes a wry personal observation, for colour, c) Selin adds an extra paragraph of questions about how that things reflects on humanity or society or herself generally. Occasional question-spiralling makes sense: that's how young, engaged people think. Continuous question-spiralling might even make sense for someone as self-aware and -critical as Selin is. But taking the reader with her starts to get tiresome after a while.

The last portrait in the show was a crayon self-portrait: "a near-death mask, starting terrified and goggle-eyed into the abyss." The image of ninety-one year old Picasso goggling itno the abyss, which was reproduced on the exhibit brochure, reminded me both of Jerry, and of Philip Roth, whose books Jerry had caused my mother to buy, and which I, too, had therefore read. Did it mean you were anti-Semitic if you didn't feel sorry for Philip Roth because shiksas didn't want to have sex with him?

Selin also experiences her sexual awakening here, with a series of mostly-faceless, pushy guys who force into sexual encounters that she doesn't solicit—and in some cases explicitly refuses—but which happen anyway.1 These men force her into their lives and take ownership of her body in a way that, to me, seems harrowing and dehumanising, but which Selin takes surprisingly in stride. She reflects on these experiences with dim pride at living an aesthetic life. Maybe I'm reading it wrong?

Finally—I'm not sure whether this book justifies itself. I'm not sure that this book, along with The Idiot before it, make more sense as two books, rather than a single book at like 80% the length of the two combined. That is—is 20% of the existing duology just filler? The way that Either/Or ends implies that there'll be another sequel, maybe covering Selin's third year at university—which would imply a fourth sequel for her final year—and I think that that book, too, will be like three-quarters really good and one-quarter filler to justify the book as a book. I'll definitely still read it, though.

  1. I think that's as far as I want to take that sentence: whether or not Selin identifies this as assault or rape probably comes down to lacking the context to situate her experiences.↩︎


Goathland standing stones

A long running loop southwest of Goathland taking in many of the most popular megalithic sites in the central North York Moors.


Greatham to Thornaby

Running a half marathon through the Middlesbrough suburban sprawl.