It can be difficult to find a funny and smart literary novel that’s also full of heart, but New Yorker staff writer Elif Batuman’s 2017 novel, “The Idiot,” nailed it. That book chronicled the 1995-96 academic year of Harvard University freshman Selin Karadağ, the first in her family of Turkish immigrants to attend college in the United States. We watch as she juggles an excess of classes and work obligations with the express intention of becoming a writer. Along the way, she falls into an unrequited epistolary romance with Ivan, a Hungarian senior in her Russian language course. Misadventures at home and abroad ensue.
Five years later, Batuman follows up “The Idiot” with its sequel, “Either/Or.” The title is a direct reference to Søren Kierkegaard’s 1843 philosophical examination of the conflict between an ethical or aesthetic life. This tension informs her sophomore year. While freshman Selin was intellectually curious but preternaturally reticent, sophomore Selin wholly abandons her more cautious self.
Eager to break from her own patterns of reserved behavior, Selin muses over the longstanding traditions of others so often followed without debate: “I couldn’t help thinking it was wasteful for people with such good logic skills to spend so many years and so much energy learning to reconcile an old book with the way things were now. Couldn’t a person just write a new book?”
After a year of pining over Ivan, she’s still beset with tears as her friends pair off and fade into the background. Faced with that void, Selin interrogates aesthetic and social boundaries. Rather than succumb to depression in her lonely virginal state, she takes matters into her own hands through medication and therapy, quashing any nihilistic thoughts with the rallying cry, “No way, I thought, I was going to stick around and bury these people.”
Being a writer meant seizing life outside the classroom. Her classmates offered little inspiration. “It was a great disappointment,” thought Selin, “to find that, even at Harvard, most people’s plan was to have children and amass money for them. You could be talking to someone who seemed like they viewed the world as a place of free movement and the exchange of ideas and then it would turn out they were in a huge hurry to get everything interesting over with while they were young.” Seeking other examples, Selin turns not only to Kierkegaard but Proust, Martin Amis, Picasso, and Fiona Apple, among others. If you’re noticing a gendered bent, you’re right. Men were more capable of unapologetically setting the terms of life and art, but what was the path for a woman writer? The French feminism of écriture féminine was more trouble than Selin felt it was worth: “Why did we have to write stuff that was hard to read and didn’t have an ending, just because men were wrong?”
Uncovering the right path required countless wrong turns. Writing workshops offered little rigor: “Everything we wrote was awful. Why did we have to talk about it?” Ultimately, Selin settles upon sex as her rightful path to mature knowledge. Selin’s humorous rush to shed the last vestiges of her childhood is a stark contrast to the community and selfhood she found with her best friend, Svetlana (whose absence is sorely missed; may she return in the next installment?), and the e-mails exchanged between Ivan and Selin. It’s awkward and often hollow to fumble toward adulthood. Yet, as Batuman catapults Selin from Harvard to Turkey for a stint as a travel guide writer for Let’s Go her skills as a writer shine. Here, Selin’s newfound self-assurance serves her and the reader well as she navigates family and suitors off the beaten track.
The book gallops along at a brisk pace, rich with cultural touchstones of the time, and one finishes hungry for more. I reread “The Idiot” before reading “Either/Or” and after almost 800 cumulative pages, I still wasn’t sated. Batuman possesses a rare ability to successfully flood the reader with granular facts, emotional vulnerability, dry humor, and a philosophical undercurrent without losing the reader in a sea of noise.
Yet what’s so urgent about a privileged first-generation immigrant in the mid-1990s that makes her worthy of not one but two novels? To put it another way, what makes a sequel worth writing? In many ways, of course Selin is a stand-in for Batuman herself. It’s clear Batuman sees enough merit in her own experiences to draw a portrait of a young woman imbued with brilliance and passion on the verge of the 21st century. The question of relevance strikes a similar chord to Selin’s own debate over leading an ethical or aesthetic life. What makes a life or story exceptional enough to create art? What art is exceptional, entertaining, and engaging enough to sustain nearly a thousand pages? Selin’s existential crisis within the collegiate crucible haunts every thoughtful reader. You can choose to live a conventional life and blend in with the masses — or you can write your way into a bold new world. Grandiose as this may sound, that search for meaning and beauty doesn’t end at graduation; losing this zeal for life marks the beginning of concessions and compromise. Selin’s existential crisis within the collegiate crucible haunts every thoughtful reader. The novel stands on its own as a rich exploration of life’s aesthetic and moral crossroads as a space to linger — not race through. Spare me sanctimonious fictional characters locked in the anguish of their regretful late twenties and early thirties: May our bold heroine Selin return to campus and stir up more drama before departing abroad again.
By Elif Batuman
Penguin Press, 368 pages, $27
Lauren LeBlanc is a writer and editor who lives in Chapel Hill, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @lequincampe.