Either/OrPosted: June 10, 2022
Penguin Press (May 24, 2022), 368 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $18.61
Elif Batuman’s second novel, Either/Or, has passages that could be considered NC-17 rated. I will attempt to keep this review at the R rated level.
In her first novel, The Idiot, Batuman’s fictional character Selin recounts her freshman year at Harvard and the summer that followed. Selin was born in the United States to Turkish parents. At Harvard she elects to focus on Russian language and literature. She meets a Hungarian named Ivan with whom she becomes infatuated and with whom she spends time in Europe over the summer. Batuman’s memoir, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (you notice Batuman’s habit of borrowing titles from well-known books), suggests that the events in her novels do not come strictly from her imagination.
In Either/Or, Batuman writes about Selin’s sophomore year at Harvard. Selin is still studying Russian, but Ivan has moved to the West Coast to do his graduate work. In this novel Ivan only appears via email. The story is set in 1999, so we see a lot about Unix computer systems on the college campus and technology such as the Walkman. (Batuman also writes about rewinding VCRs and buying music at Tower Records.)
As in the first novel, Selin has a habit of overthinking everything. She analyses every novel or work of theology that she reads to see how her own life maps into the book. Selin thinks a lot about sex, but is not sure she wants to experience it, as she cannot even insert a tampon without pain. When she finally does lose her virginity she looks at the package of condoms and the tube of K-Y Jelly by the bed and speculates about the manufacturing process of each. And, yes, she found intercourse painful.
For the summer she gets hired by the Let’s Go travel guide (it really exists) to update their volume on Turkey. It seems that non-Turkish people working for them in that country tend to have nervous breakdowns, so the coordinator was happy to hire someone with a Turkish heritage who spoke the language to do the work. While in Turkey she constantly encounters men who want to have sex with her, and with whom she complies, mostly because it’s easier than saying no. But she experiences no pleasure in the process. And she even overthinks those encounters. (“I had sex with the first three guys. What right do I have to turn down the fourth?”) She is, however, strict about condom use.
Selin arranged to follow her Turkey venture with an academic internship in Russia. The novel ends as she arrives in Russia, leaves the airport, and takes a cab to the location of her internship, so we learn nothing about that part of her summer.
I enjoyed the narrative about life on campus at Harvard, but I found the Turkey section of the book tedious. (I’m always open to suggestions about a college campus novel I haven’t read.)
With Selin’s arrival in Russia Batuman does not offer any sort of conclusion or resolution, so perhaps we will someday see a novel about Selin’s junior year. I hope so, but I hope Selin learns to stop overthinking everything.