Review of Either: Elif Batuman’s Idiot Sequel Is Weird, Shaggy, Sweet
The idiot, Elif Batuman’s charming and deadpan debut novel of 2018, was unconventional when it came to coming-of-age stories. The protagonist, Selin, took very little concrete action and in the end she informed us that she “didn’t learn anything at all”. Whether orBatuman’s sequel to The idiot and a direct sequel, shares the dryly understated spirit of its predecessor, but does so with a much more conventional structure. At the end of Whether orSelin definitely learned something.
Selin was a student at Harvard in the 1990s, just when email was starting to become a thing. In The idiot, she flirted with an enigmatic Hungarian mathematician named Ivan almost entirely over email, while studying linguistics and thinking very hard about the relationship between language and meaning. When she followed Ivan to Hungary at the end of his freshman year, however, their relationship ended without so much as a kiss. All that talk of language in her classes and emails hadn’t helped her much once she’d tried to translate her romance into the real world.
Now like Whether or begins, Selin enters her second year determined to embrace a new outlook on life. She changed her major from linguistics to literature, and having decided that she wanted to be a novelist, she set out to learn how to live an aesthetic life. The problem is that she doesn’t quite know how to go about doing such a thing.
Philosophical treatise by Søren Kierkegaard Whether or, whom Selin encounters very early in the novel and which gives its title to this volume, presents the aesthetic life as the counterpart of the ethical life of marriage and children. (The idiot was named after Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel of the same name and Batuman’s 2010 memoir The Possessed also took his title from Dostoevsky.) Selin, who has no interest in getting married or having children, eagerly pounces on it, but is disappointed to find that Kierkegaard’s version of aesthetic life revolves mostly around the seduction and then the abandonment of young women. When Selin reads her story, she recognizes herself not in the seductive esthete but in her victim, the heartbroken Cordelia.
“Was there a way to view Cordelia’s situation as not bad, or as bad only for historically contingent reasons?” Selin wonders with a hint of despair. “Was there a version of ‘The Seducer’s Diary’ where they were equal?”
Lacking a clear map from one of her textbooks, Selin has to improvise as best she can. She enrolls in a class by chance. She experiments by only making the decisions she would want a character in a novel to make, on the grounds that at some point she can just write whatever happens to her and it will be a book. And she decides, with a little less aloofness than she might want to suggest, to lose her virginity.
It is this slippery clinical mask that separates Whether or most definitely The idiot. Selin is by nature a character who spends most of her time thinking, and The idiot, she was able to use these thoughts to successfully draw herself and the reader away from their emotions, especially the more bodily ones. It was clear she was spending a lot of time thinking about Ivan, but Selin wasn’t about to tell us she was considering sleeping with him.
But seven pages in Whether or, Selin informs us that although the idea of having sex with Ivan or someone else did not seem so appealing to her, sometimes off the page of the previous book, she had thought about what it would be like to do the deed. Moreover, “it was immediately obvious that if Ivan tried to have sex with me, I would leave him”. The Selin of The idiot would be dead before telling us.
Because Selin spends less time Whether or hiding from her feelings than she did in The idiot, this novel has less of the cool polish of its predecessor. This book is more shaggy and less disciplined, but also more vigorous, and Selin has become a stronger and more defined character. When she chooses to veil her emotions, it is only to make the inevitable unveiling all the more devastating.
Her eventual and catastrophic first time, she glosses over in a sober blood-streaked montage, capped off with what she considers “a really funny joke”: “So what’s this all about?” she said sharply to her panicked lover (he didn’t laugh). But 20 pages later, Selin returns to the event with an unexpectedly brutal summary: “I was hurt, and hurt, and hurt, for two hours,” she tells us. The line lands like a shot.
Selin’s romantic woes, however, exist in the service of a greater quest: her twin is trying to figure out how to be a writer and how to live the kind of life she considers worthwhile. In this regard, Batuman’s prose becomes tender and the irony of his humor becomes affectionate. Selin cultivates an end-of-story apoliticalism and never identifies herself as a feminist in the text, but she can’t help but notice that many of the books she admires are written by men about women they consider stupid. Understanding how to be a good writer, like understanding how to live an aesthetic life, means finding a way to not quite identify with one or the other. At the end of Whether orSelin has finally gained enough confidence to see her way.
“I wasn’t stupid or mundane, and I was living in the future,” Selin concludes in 1990s comfort. “Nobody was going to trick me into marrying a loser, and even if they did, I would write this fucking book myself.”
Do you choose the aesthetic life or the ethical life? If you are Selin, you choose aesthetic life – but you are responsible for what aesthetic means.