MAY 24, 2022
WHEN WE NEXT ENCOUNTER Selin Karadaǧ, the protagonist first brought to life in Elif Batuman’s 2017 novel, The Idiot, she has just returned from Hungary where she had gone to improve her nascent language skills. It is the summer after her freshman year at Harvard, a year spent navigating what it means to leave home for the first time, deciphering weird roommates, new friends, and a strange email correspondence with Ivan, an older mathematics student. Either/Or, Batuman’s sequel, opens at the start of Selin’s sophomore year.
The term begins like all autumnal terms at college, with the thud of dragging suitcases and the thrill of re-immersing oneself in the world of academe. Selin registers for an accelerated Russian class, a science core requirement, and a comparative lit course called “Chance.” She audits an ethics seminar, meets with her financial aid officer, hears about friends’ summers. With her roommates Riley, Priya, and Joanne, Selin moves into overflow housing, the dorm they had originally been assigned having lacked a certain ivy-and-brick charm and the memories of a thousand collegiate dramas. Svetlana, Selin’s closest friend, now lives elsewhere. Already Selin feels their separation: “How brief and magical it was that we all lived so close to each other and went in and out of each other’s rooms, and our most important job was to solve mysteries.”
Although he has graduated and moved to California, Ivan dogs her thoughts. Selin signs up for “Chance” in part because Ivan’s graduate studies examine probability. Her reading list includes Søren Kierkegaard’s 1843 philosophical classic Either/Or (Batuman revealing early on where she got her title). The cover blurb for her edition reads: “Either, then, one is to live aesthetically or one is to live ethically.” It was a framework that Selin had first come across in a different English class the year prior, which both she and Svetlana had used as a means of evaluating their differences. Svetlana thought Selin led an aesthetic life as opposed to her own ethical one. The aesthetic life was riskier and less obedient, concerning itself with “interesting love affairs” rather than marriage and mortgages (or even survey classes). Clutching Either/Or, Selin’s heart beats with anticipation: here was the book to answer her questions.
How an aesthetic life manifests itself at university is tied often to one’s new sense of freedom. Vowing to pursue a life as interesting as that of any novel, Selin attends parties; she gets drunk; she is determined to have sex — and readers are privy to her every deliberation. But whereas The Idiot concerned itself with linguistic misgivings and dislocations — and their various power dynamics — Either/Or is oriented more toward the physical world. Bodies, with all their vulnerabilities, teem through the pages. Svetlana restricts her caloric intake not to “diminish herself, but, rather, to reveal her real, stronger body.” Diagnosed with breast cancer, Selin’s mother undergoes a mastectomy and later gets new prosthetic breasts. Selin attends a Pilates class where she is surrounded by “a sea of Lycra-clad girls all doing pelvic bridges, synchronously imitating the instructor’s huffing, rhythmic breathing.” She starts taking antidepressants after a long bout of nonstop crying. Everyone has sex for the first time. Even Selin’s academic pursuits are touched by the corporeal; she finds it “disturbing” that so much of Swann’s Way is about falling asleep:
Some of it was interesting — like when he fell asleep reading and thought his body was the rivalry between François I and Charles V, because that’s what he had been reading about. Or when he realised that his body could remember the furniture and configuration of all the other bedrooms he had slept in over his whole life.
Figuring out how to be a person among other people is a large part of what one actually learns at university. It is a strange negotiation to be in and of the world, and one with which Selin struggles. Unfortunately, this awkwardness can make for dull reading at times. Selin thinks in unanswerable questions, many of which are inane. “Was a style what you needed to make someone fall in love with you?” she wonders. Or: “Had that been when I lost the thread of the story I was telling myself — the thread of the story about my life?” Flicking through the course catalog, she finds that the organization of majors makes no sense: “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?”
Many thoughts are inconsequential, arising while queuing for coffee or the bus or the bank teller, and most are hardly worth repeating. Chat about the weather or commute trouble is interesting only to the persons affected; similarly, one’s own thoughts, no matter how profound one may feel them to be, are largely of interest only to oneself and maybe a small coterie of friends. Novels grant us entrance into someone else’s world, but not everything in that world needs to be put on the page. Following Selin as she navigates sex, desire, and language (and makes conclusions about all three) is fascinating; her stabs at philosophy are not.
Mirroring the structure of The Idiot, Either/Or extends into the summer break. Selin has accepted a job working for Let’s Go, a travel company whose guidebooks are geared for the young and impoverished. She is to spend time in Turkey verifying previous observations before making her way to Russia for language study. What, she wonders, is “the relationship between leaving the country and an aesthetic life?”
Her trip begins in Ankara. She tours the city, noting which hostels are still open and which restaurants serve big portions for little money. A week or so later, she steals away one morning first for Tokat, then Kayseri, to follow an itinerary more or less set by Let’s Go. There are monuments to visit and beaches to investigate. At the bus station in Ahmetpașa, a man named Mesut helps Selin get to some nearby grottoes, a site that no local deems worthy of a visit. When she returns, he is waiting to take her on a scenic tour. She knows she shouldn’t get into a car with a strange man, but “wasn’t the bus also full of men?” At some point Mesut parks overlooking a moonlit expanse. He leans over, reclines Selin’s seat, and tries to climb over the gearshift and onto her. She refuses his advances only to sleep with him later that evening.
In some ways, this is the theme of the trip. Everywhere Selin goes she attracts attention, which is often the case when one is female and out in the world. For much of her time in Turkey she lacks the energy to repel these men, which says a lot about her age and what she is willing to tolerate in the name of both safety and the pursuit of experience. In Anamur, a hostel worker named Volkan offers to drive Selin to the ancient city of Anemurium, the ruins of which abut a deserted beach. He wants to sleep with her; whether they do so then isn’t clear, but they do eventually. Selin later finds herself “stuck” with Volkan, who acts like her boyfriend and talks repeatedly about anal sex, something she refuses to do until she realizes that it is the only way to shut him up. Sometimes, it really is easier to give in than to say no, an experience that most if not all the women I know have had. There are moments when it’s more expedient to simply cede control, but there are also times when one must assert autonomy — a decision that, for the sake of survival, one needs to become adept at fairly quickly.
Selin initially conceives of an aesthetic life as being composed of a string of adventures. She is after an accumulation of experiences, whether enjoyable or not. But aesthetics and ethics are not entirely irreconcilable, however distant they may appear at times to be. It is possible to have a mortgage and also follow one’s whims, or to have children and also be risky, or simply to weave precariously between the two. It is possible to want to sleep with someone you don’t love. Not everything can be so easily classified, but at 19, the gap between being responsible and taking chances can seem stark and insurmountable. What is difficult to see is that there is no clear “decisive moment” in one’s life but rather a million such moments whose importance can only be registered in retrospect. But that is the nature of being young in the world: everything seems urgent, new, and potent when in fact, life is not so much an either/or as an and, and, and …