“Generous reading” is an approach to ideas that was in vogue among my friends in college. In brief, its precepts demand that new and even disagreeable arguments be afforded as much credence as possible. One could be critical only after deeply entertaining the worldview presented, suspending disbelief beyond the confines of fiction. But when I graduated from college, I begrudged it for putting me out of touch with my feelings. What did I really like, and what did I despise? Disillusioned, I embarked on a course of “mean reading” to counteract a yearslong program to distance myself, and my own subjectivity, from my intellectual and aesthetic explorations—deconditioning my sterling traits of open-mindedness and understanding, permitting myself an arbitrary cruelty to the canon. From this I made some preliminary conclusions: no more Jackson Pollock and his arbitrary splatters, James Joyce and his inscrutable sentences, Jacques Derrida and his deconstructive method. Still, it left many things about my sensibility frustratingly hazy, such as how I would summarize it in a three-sentence bio.
In the middle of this self-imposed corrective education, I read Either/Or, Elif Batuman’s sequel to The Idiot, her 2017 campus novel that follows Selin, a perpetually confused Turkish American majoring in Russian literature, through her freshman year at Harvard. She falls hopelessly in love with Ivan, “a seven-foot-tall Hungarian guy who stares at everyone like he’s trying to see through their souls.” In Either/Or, Selin picks up where she left off, skittishly checking for new email from him. Reading about Ivan is like listening to a smart female friend verbalize her pathologies about men with the emotional intelligence of a preteen. The problem turns out to be serious for Selin. She is obviously clinically depressed, and for the greater half of the novel, she is constantly crying, with a roll of toilet paper stuffed in the crevice between her top bunk and the wall. She can’t even cry in peace. Her roommate and her boyfriend sleeping beneath her pretend that she doesn’t exist at night, so she’s relegated to crying on the T after therapy, an activity that regularly humiliates her sense of self.
In the midst of all of this, Selin is still doing what she did best in The Idiot: reacting to eclectic influences, in the form of keystones of Western literature (André Breton’s Nadja, Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady), her best friend Svetlana’s stodgy regard for historicism and tradition, a low-production street paper with contributions by “street people,” and tourist guides. That’s the first thing about Either/Or that made me gape with awe. Selin is a mean reader, though it doesn’t make her any less tender or humane. The novel is so iconoclastic that it reads like a tight-five standup set on the Western canon (except, of course, that it goes on for 350-odd pages). I laughed out loud repeatedly, reading her charmingly naive one-sentence ripostes to theories and books that have been the subject of bottomless grant funding, long dissertations, and whole careers. To Freud’s hypothesis that déjà vu in dreams is always about “the genitals of the dreamer’s mother,” she says that she “felt relieved to think that this was not the case for me” because she was delivered by C-section. On Picasso, she says she feels “bullied”: one either has to think he’s a genius, or alternatively be the kind of person who “only liked photorealistic paintings of cars.” On a moral reasoning class entitled “If There Is No God, Then All is Permitted,” she is caustic: “Someone whose only reason for not acting in an antisocial way was that they were scared of getting in trouble with God… where did you even start with such a person?” When I was done with it, I passed the book from one friend to another, each of whom audibly cracked up reading every couple of pages, too.
There’s a strange way in which we are shielded as readers from Selin’s deep depression, like abstractly knowing that your close friend is going through a tough time even as all your interactions point to the fact that he’s the same, funny guy you’ve always known. She acknowledges that her amusing tendency to deflect is one of her signature skills as a writer. “I was good at… making stressful situations seem funny,” she notes. “But it turned out these weren’t the skills you needed in order to invent quirky people and give them arcs of desire.” All the great books she reads are driven by drama, building tension, and catharsis, but none of these plot devices align with what she knows how to do. Her own formative life experiences, after all, have failed to conform to the hallmarks of good narrative. Talking to Ivan’s ex on the phone, she is struck by “a wave of anxiety” that her relationship with Ivan “had a beginning, a middle, and an end,” when “nothing between Ivan and me had happened that way.” Disoriented by the conventions of narrative, Selin’s most pressing tasks are figuring out her place in the canon and her way in the world. Reading Breton brings Selin to the crowning insight of the novel. “What if I could use the aesthetic life as an algorithm to solve my two biggest problems: how to live, and how to write novels? In any real-life situation, I would pretend I was in a novel, and then do whatever I would want the person in the novel to do. Afterward, I would write it all down, and I would have written a novel,” she proclaims.
There is indeed something algorithmic about Selin’s discovery, uniquely satisfying in the elegance of its solution. But life isn’t a math problem. Profound messiness ensues. Her “algorithm” justifies a series of decisions prompting both celebration and concern. Selin, who at the novel’s start has never kissed anyone, has sex for the first time with a man she propositions over email. She goes to Turkey and Russia to write tour guides for Let’s Go, a travel publication she admires for its “witty and irreverent” tone. She has a fling with a guy she meets at a bus station who she says comes closer to her than anyone else has. She is raped by somebody, though she doesn’t narrate it as such. In the aftermath of that event, she wonders, as she leans in to kiss a man who is “poor” and “missing a tooth,” “Why would I allow some people to do this, and not others?” So much is wrapped up in that shatteringly innocent and prescient question I could cry. (Virtually every great insight in this book comes in this form: from a position of childlike alienation to the world.) As Either/Or nears its end, it becomes clear that Selin’s single-minded pursuit of the aesthetic life doesn’t give her the mental resources to reconcile her desires with her instinctive notions of fairness and justice.
The self-destructiveness inherent to her disposition toward the aesthetic life can be genuinely difficult to read for a person in her early 20s who is as lost as Selin is, in many of the same ways that Selin is lost. I want to find Batuman and shake her down for some answers. (Not literally, I’d be too embarrassed; and anyways, Batuman says that many of Selin’s questions remain ones she is working through today at the age of 44.) Still, Batuman has developed perspectives that Selin manifestly lacks in the pages of Either/Or. (I feel no qualms blurring the boundaries between Selin the character and Batuman the author, for reasons abundantly clear to anyone who reads the novel.) Batuman, in contrast to Selin, is now a proponent of psychotherapy, decries the false distinction between being a “literature person” and a “politics person,” and is more critical about whether being taken to “pretty dark places” is inevitable for an artistic person. She has thoughts about “compulsory heterosexuality” and is now in a committed “nonheterosexual relationship.” For someone who overidentifies with Selin’s preoccupations about writing, friendship, sexuality, and love, it’s hard to resist the impulse to be extremely literal when presented with these facts about Batuman’s life. Somewhere in the gap between Selin’s narration and Batuman’s real life lies the wisdom of experience, it seems—a mysterious thing for someone who doesn’t yet have it.
Watching Selin agonize over Ivan and fling herself into very questionable situations elicits a familiar problem. Is going through upsetting experiences necessary to grow, or is that what we tell ourselves afterwards to give them meaning? There is an eerie parallel between the way Selin reads a load of required readings only to rebel against them and the way she acts out compulsory coming-of-age scripts—“leaving the country, ruining people, falling in love, and having sex,” as she puts it early on—only to elucidate her relationship to these seminal hallmarks of adulthood. About those aforementioned “dark places,” Batuman writes that Selin takes them “to be unavoidable and part of the rich tapestry of life—but are they?” Reviewing life in hindsight, the answer often appears to be a firm “no”—but then again, life isn’t lived backwards.
Selin does have another heuristic for writing, one that she joyfully comes upon at the end of the novel while reading Henry James “hurtling north” on an airplane to Russia “at five hundred miles an hour.” James writes that it would be a “subtle” and “monstrous” thing to “write the history of the growth of one’s imagination,” something he clarifies he doesn’t believe to actually be possible. Selin, exhilarated, seizes on the possibilities of “reconstruction” and “excavation”—that “subtle, monstrous thing where you figured out what you were doing, and why.” She is amazed by the scenes in Portrait of a Lady in which the protagonist “sat in a chair and realized things,” and she is amazed by James’ ability to make them as lively as any conventionally eventful scene. Though it has taken her two books to give her writerly practice a name, James gives Selin language for what she’s been doing all along—borrowing from some sources, repudiating others, and synthesizing all of these materials with her own experiences, punctuated by some angst and melancholy here and an epiphany or two there.
In Either/Or, Batuman shows us that this is what an identity and a life are: our relationships to what has been written before and society’s stories about itself. If this is true, then we begin to see how Selin’s imagination might one day grow to encompass the belief that “the only way to live a free life is to strive constantly to free yourself and others.” What could be more generous than this?
By Elif Batuman
Published on May 24, 2022