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Book review: Either/Or by Elif Batuman

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By Simon Demetriou

When Selin, the protagonist of Either/Or, realises that she is no good at what her Harvard course list calls ‘Creative Writing’, she finds a way to avoid letting this fact get in the way of her life-long desire to be a novelist. Selin determines that, ‘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, without having had to invent a bunch of fake characters and pretend to care about them.’

Either/Or, then, is a novel about writing a novel without writing a novel. Or about living a life that is novelistic enough that the life itself becomes the novel. Indeed, Elif Batuman and her narrator are powerfully preoccupied with the question of how one should live. This becomes clear when Selin reveals that the Either/Or which fascinates her is Kierkegaard’s exploration of two opposite modes of life: the aesthetic, which focuses on hedonism and fleeting but multiple experiences; and the ethical, which is marked by commitment.

Selin, who cannot comprehend why all her friends seem so convinced of the inherent virtue of settling down – often with ‘boors’ – and popping out babies, and who has ‘a terror of being bored’ naturally wants to pursue the aesthetic life. Of course, the aesthetic life also lends itself more to writing her novel without making anything up.

The bulk of the novel is therefore made up of Selin doing novel-worthy things: breaking conventional rules about casual sex; working for a travel guide on a route that has left successive researchers in a state of mental breakdown; and trying to figure out whether Ivan, the Hungarian PhD student who captured Selin’s affections in Batuman’s previous book The Idiot (of which Either/Or is the continuation) is actually an evil seducer like the one in Kierkegaard’s Either/Or.

Along the way, what emerges is a beautifully observed picture of a character whose intellect and innocence capture what it is to be both extremely intelligent and largely bewildered by the world. Yes, this can take the form of some typical Ivy-League pretentiousness, like a conversation on ‘what was charisma: a content or a form?’ Most of the time, though, Selin’s hyper-self-conscious questioning of how her life might be made sense of through literature, and her indignation at ‘How unjust it was, when people treated the actual as limiting proof of the possible’ has the effect of completely winning over the reader to this character who never really figures things out but never loses the will to try.

 

 

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