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Wait, Haven’t I Heard This One Before?

A Review of Elif Batuman’s ‘Either/Or’

Hubert Adjei-Kontoh
July 13, 2022
Original photo: Getty Images
Original photo: Getty Images
Original photo: Getty Images
Original photo: Getty Images

There are moments in life when one suspects they are going crazy. After looking through the more rapturous reviews of Elif Batuman’s latest novel, Either/Or, I am certain that I am going through some sort of manic episode (it would not be the first time). According to Dwight Garner of The New York Times, “Batuman has a gift for making the universe seem, somehow, like the benevolent and witty literary seminar you wish it were.” I have never wanted the universe to be a benevolent and witty literary seminar, though I will cop to wishing it were less cruel. In Harper’s, Claire Messud claims that the “joy” of Batuman’s fiction comes from the way her narrator, Selin, combines “literature and philosophy with the potentially oppressive banality of undergraduate life.” Such praise might lead you to believe that Either/Or is a work of comic complexity rather than a ponderous autofiction about a Harvard undergraduate’s college and study-abroad experiences.

Perhaps I was naive to assume a book jacketed by such praise would be any good at all. Today, members of the still-very-white and impeccably credentialed media industry rarely publish or review books that do not represent the newfound political pieties to which they pay lip service—at the price of producing endless reams of same-sounding product that no one outside their airless circles wants to read. Instead of rewarding innovation on the page, they shamelessly boast about the power of literature to “make better people” (whatever that means; to this writer, it sounds like a way to make not-better art).

Enter Elif Batuman, a Harvard graduate, Ph.D. in comparative literature from Stanford, and current staff writer at The New Yorker, born to Turkish parents. By sheer coincidence, her protagonist, Selin, is a Turkish undergraduate at Harvard who goes through a series of classes, friendships, and love affairs. Already at age 20, Selin attempts to form that material into a narrative that she imagines may one day be a novel (yes, we are reading that novel). She reads literature critically, taking it seriously as both an art form and a moral guide. When she reads literature by the masters, she finds them lacking in their treatment of their women characters and wonders what the “actual stories” of the women these men wrote about would be. She concludes that women are better off telling their own stories because if not, they will be poorly represented by men.

The underlying argument of Batuman’s didactic, semi-memoirish production is that because the narrator is forced to read canonical works by men who told stories about women they invented, this book’s mere existence should place its author up with the greats. As someone who believes in the equality of mediocrity, I say go for it. But there are plenty of bad books in the American canon, and it means very little to me what is added or subtracted from lists made up by academics because I am not an academic. These days, contemporary fiction’s focus on the personal is “important” because reading personal stories from a carefully curated list of marginalized authors allows the contemporary fiction reader (an endangered species if there ever was one) to develop empathy for others. It is my misfortune, and maybe yours, too, to be a reader at a time when the most hollowed-out concepts from the academy are being used to justify the very practice of reading.

Batuman claims that when she was a student at Harvard, she “thought: racism is over, sexism is over, bigotry is over. I was in for a rude awakening.” The rude awakening she speaks about, is, of course, the election of Donald Trump.

There were and are many reasons to be disgusted with the results of the 2016 election. And to the continued imperial war, further working-class immiseration, the conservative takeover of the Supreme Court, the shredding of civil rights, the dehumanization of undocumented immigrants, we can add this minor one: the surge of the Trump novel. The most famous example is probably Ben Lerner’s Topeka School. The final book of an unintentional trilogy that began with the semi-humorous Leaving the Atocha Station, this book follows Adam Gordon (a Ben Lerner surrogate) as he realizes that the denizens of his Kansas City hometown are irredeemable racists and homophobes. They come in two types: the common man (as represented by a boy with mental difficulties that we first meet when young Adam is a teenager) and the manipulator (a debate coach who teaches the technique of the “spread” and goes on to become the “key architect of the most right-wing governorship Kansas has ever known”).

It becomes obvious that Lerner is focused on crafting an argument for his bourgeois existence. The ending of the novel is literally Gordon “learning how to speak” by going with his kids to an anti-ICE protest where he listens to others; i.e., he’s finally learned how to shut up. Could this ironic lesson be delivered in a pamphlet of four or five pages? In a self-denouncing tweet? Yes, but Lerner thinks he’s writing for posterity and therefore believes his words, even about his ability to listen, should take up physical space. There is nothing mediocrity hates more than a vacuum, which brings us back to Batuman.

It would be untrue to say that reading Either/Or was a boring experience, because I have often enjoyed being bored. Boredom is part of what compels me to read, and also what compels me to stop reading and do something else entirely. Some of my favorite books—Frederic Exley’s A Fan Notes, Margaret Drabble’s The Garrick Year, and yes, Knausgaard’s My Struggle—all of which are also more or less based on the lives of their creators, contain long stretches where I felt bored. Yet, when I am finally not bored, I found myself contending with that impossible-to-parse combination of pure intellect and impeccable craft that makes me more focused on the paper, ink, and glue in front of me than anything else. When I read Batuman’s latest, I was generally in a state of irritation. Consider the following:

It wasn’t until high school, when I took my first creative writing class, that I began to sense trouble. I realized, with shock, that I wasn’t good at creative writing. I was good at grammar and arguing, at remembering things people said, and at making stressful situations seem funny. But it turned out these weren’t the skills you needed in order to invent quirky people and give them arcs of desire. I already had my hands full writing about the people I actually knew, and all the things they said. That was what I needed writing for. Now I had to invent extra people and think of things for them to say?

This type of rumination wouldn’t be out of place in, say, a podcast interview about how the writer got her start. As writing, however, it is profoundly uncompelling. One can now justify this style by saying that the writer is going deliberately against the grain and refusing to bow to the dictates of novel writing, especially as prescribed in “creative writing” classes. Yet, after reading paragraph after paragraph in this voice, I wanted to answer her final rhetorical question with a resounding, “Yes, that’s what you are supposed to do because you have decided to write a novel, and if you cannot do that, then you have failed.”

By allowing Selin to be the mouthpiece for these lukewarm observations, Batuman shields herself from criticism in two ways. First, no one wants to fault a young person for being naive; and second, Batuman gives herself an out for writing a dull novel. Don’t you see, the style says, real life is boring and this is a novel about real life. Yet, writing from life carries its own set of difficulties, the most obvious being that whenever we write we write from a subjective viewpoint, meaning that even the most rigorous writer of autofiction is unable to properly transcribe reality. To succeed in this quixotic task, the writer must be an insanely interesting personality or a meticulous prose stylist. Unfortunately, I find the early lives of our current crop of elites hideously dull, and the formless style threadbare.

Take this reading of Isaac Babel’s “My First Goose”:

There were many things I could relate to in the story. I had spent a lot of my formative years trying to concentrate on what I was reading, while surrounded by blond boys with amazing faces who were farting at me. But I didn’t see why the narrator had to murder a goose or be so rude to a disabled person. Was it because I knew that, no matter how rude I was and no matter how many geese I murdered, the respect and camaraderie of the towheaded farters would always be turned against me; that I—my name, my appearance, my being—was part of what sustained that camaraderie?

Are fart jokes still funny? I found myself wishing I was reading Babel, instead. It’s not that I don’t believe that this is what an undergraduate might say about Babel if magically stripped of the undergraduate need to “sound smart”—and the equally powerful impulse not to say anything fatally embarrassing—it’s that there is no reason for me to care what any Harvard undergraduate says about literature unless I was flung to some section of hell that was an endless Harvard undergraduate seminar.

What this reading shows is that Selin is as self-involved as any young Ivy League student. She later confesses that she could do a “good” reading of this story: “Great literature didn’t judge. It described complex individuals who were neither good nor bad. Oh, I knew how to get an A in English just as well as the next person.” It’s a reductive but telling observation. Of course, great authors make judgments all the time, but they get there by creating impossible situations that nonetheless call for decisive action from their characters (think Huck’s decision to “go to hell” to save Jim).

So yes, while any elite undergraduate can get an A on a paper by saying life is complex and so is fiction, that doesn’t speak to the hollowness of fiction so much as the hollowness of academic criticism (or at least of a grading system now in its third decade of inflation). Professors generally appreciate anyone who tells them what they want to hear. Either/Or, like Selin herself, succeeds on that front. Queue professor Clair Wills of The London Review of Books:

One of the pleasures afforded by Either/Or is that of watching misogynistic portraits of women being taken apart. Another source of readerly satisfaction is the tale of a clever, gawky young woman, mistreated and misunderstood, finding her own way to tell her story.

To her, Selin’s humorous readings of Chekhov, Babel, and Breton show the innocence of youth and the deficiencies of the canon. I don’t necessarily agree, nor do I care about tales where half-clever people find “new ways” of telling their own stories—we live in the land of the memoir, the press release, and the advertisement. America is a country where many “clever people” find ways of telling me what they want me to believe so they can get my vote or take money out of my pocket.

Without this strategically applied pressure, I don’t know who would voluntarily swallow this unedifying mix of lukewarm liberal humanism and standpoint epistemology except for people who directly benefit from the fact that the infinite largesse of the private elite university is generally administered by spineless people who care very little about literature or art but very much about shrinking endowments and bad publicity, and therefore care a lot about making space for nice white liberal people with acceptable views to be able to keep on writing about themselves while kowtowing to whatever orthodoxies about “marginalized people” are in vogue at the moment.

The reason Batuman’s novel ultimately feels so tedious is because its purpose is social rather than literary. According to the author, she started working on the book during the beginning of her first lesbian relationship with a woman who became her eventual life partner. She has stated in interviews that Either/Or is “a book written from a queer and political consciousness, about a person who doesn’t yet realize that she has either of these things.”

Batuman’s project has always been about proving how much she knows—remember how she once fooled her literature professors. Now she knows that it’s wrong to be apolitical, she’s adjusted her takes on literature accordingly. This goal may be why Batuman makes Selin as spotless as possible. Selin only makes the most juvenile of mistakes, and they only occur because she thinks so much about what other people think about her.

Reading Either/Or felt like reading a politician’s memoir, where the name of the game is to list achievements that readers will agree are worthy and admirable and to deny any evidence of wrongdoing and wrong-think. Also like an American politician’s memoir, there’s the obligatory remembrance of time abroad. To Batuman’s credit, the country she is describing is the Turkey of her emigré parents. And here a liveliness to the writing emerges that exists nowhere else in the book:

My grandmother often spoke in proverbs that I didn’t understand. I was used to tuning them out. Now it occurred to me that, if this had been a “foreign” country—if it had been Russia—I would have been trying to learn the proverbs. I started writing them down. Some featured my old friend, the fakir. “The fakir chicken lays eggs one at a time”: that was about not being in a hurry, and seemed somehow directed at me. Another saying, “The egg didn’t like its shell,” was used for people who tried to distance themselves from where they came from, or who disrespected their parents.

There’s a hint of true fallibility here as Selin recognizes an inheritance that she has, until now, ignored. She realizes that if she was in a country she felt to be truly “foreign,” she would be trying to learn from the people around her. She immediately begins to correct her mistake, as if she had made an error in her homework. Your intellect can actually prevent you from seeing what’s in front of your face.

Hubert Adjei-Kontoh is an itinerant bookseller and fiction writer.