The worst part of having a Kierkegaard-related nervous breakdown, according to Selin’s best friend, Svetlana, in Elif Batuman’s second novel, Either/Or, is not being able to tell people about it, lest you appear self-important. We glean the second-worst part for ourselves: the sense of existential dread that turns even the most seemingly simple decisions into philosophical ones. Throughout this novel, the sequel to 2018’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated The Idiot, Selin – our narrator – is bewildered by the mundane and fixated on the profound. Strings of passing questions are imbued with Batuman’s wit and flair – “What good was a novelty candle?” “What good was the actual Hippocrates?” “What was a Swedish twin fetish?”. One, though, is present throughout: are some lives more real than others?
At the end of The Idiot, we left Selin, a Turkish-American Harvard student studying Russian literature, in a remote village in Hungary, where she had travelled to pursue a love interest – the elusive, infuriating Ivan. In Either/Or we are back at Harvard, where she has new roommates, a new syllabus (“How I envy you in this sea of choices,” Svetlana’s mother says in non-native English, the syntax of which so fascinates Batuman), and a lingering sense of anxiety about how, despite her romantic-seeming adjournment to Eastern Europe last summer, she has still never been kissed.
Either/Or takes its title from Kierkegaard’s debut of the same name – just as The Idiot derived from Dostoyevsky – in which Selin finds comfort. We must choose, Kierkegaard says, between an aesthetic life defined by hedonism (“seducing and abandoning young girls and making them go crazy”) or an ethical one, defined by duty (thinking it’s “great and life-affirming to go hiking with some guy, or to get married”). She wonders: “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?”
Problematically for Selin, the aesthetic life involves having sex, a prospect that she worries is both philosophically confusing and physically impossible. For the first half of the novel she retreats to the “soundless concrete cube” of the library and pores over Eugene Onegin to interpret her abortive relationship with Ivan rather than engaging with the world. “When will we talk about genre theory?” she asks him in a last-ditch attempt to reignite the flame. “Why can’t you do anything like a normal person?” he responds.
[See also: How the super-rich live]
Selin ultimately has sex to cultivate an aesthetic, “novelistic” life – but, somewhat ironically, sex appears novelistic to Selin precisely because it should, theoretically, give her a break from thinking about whether or not she is in a novel and allow her for once to become immersed in an experience. (Naturally, she has varying degrees of success with this, the first time she does it she thinks “about the condom factory, wondering why they called it Trojan when the Trojan horse was a story about permeability”.)
Conversely, events that actually are novelistic – in that they could be used as plot devices – are rarely fully expounded. One example is her mother’s cancer diagnosis, which is used as part of ongoing reflections on their relationship rather than for narrative drive, as it likely would in any other novel; another is when a stingray appears in her kitchen sink and Selin is remarkably incurious: “several questions came to my mind, like whose stingray it was, why it was in the sink… I realised none of these things was actually a problem for me, so I just went to the library.”
Occasionally this leaves us longing for more momentum. The endless character observations and intellectual meanderings of Either/Or risk betraying Batuman’s own desire, like Selin’s, to drop a creative writing class in which she is supposed to submit a description of her bed in favour of writing about “interpersonal relations and the human condition”. On the other hand, perhaps the book can contain both: where Selin’s reflections are sometimes overwrought – “How unjust it was, when people treated the actual as limiting proof of the possible!” – her objective descriptions, including those of furniture, are satisfyingly evocative – “The sofa, when one sat on it, had an organic, swamp like quality”.
Like The Idiot, Either/Or culminates in a trip to Europe. This time Selin has a summer job updating a travel guide called Let’s Go. For all her agonising over literature, it is Let’s Go that perhaps best encapsulates the problem that arises from the either/or question. Without acknowledging the irony of its own heavy curation, it mandates an “authentic” experience. According to the editors, this is easier to find in Turkey, despite Selin’s Turkish family’s affirmations that she was lucky to grow up in the US.
Although the cultivated ethos of Let’s Go seems antithetical to Selin’s dedication to the aesthetic life, being the tour guide rather than the tourist helps her to understand that she can also be the author of a novel, not just a character in one. What appears to be a straightforward either/or is exposed by Batuman as altogether more blurry: whether you’re in the library, at a dorm party or in rural Hungary, there is no such thing as a life more real than another.
Vintage, 368pp, £16.99
[See also: Burning the bastards out]