Batuman has a gift for making the universe seem, somehow, like the benevolent and witty literary seminar you wish it were ... an even better, more soulful novel. Selin is more confident and, more important, so is Batuman ... This novel wins you over in a million micro-observations ... When Selin does begin to have sex, she is so perceptive that the scenes are a wonder ... When you write as well as Batuman does, there are worse fates. But you wonder if the next two novels will recount Selin’s junior and senior years, in a Harvard quartet, and what would happen if Batuman kicked away from shore.
Selin is still doing what she did best in The Idiot: reacting to eclectic influences, in the form of keystones of Western literature ... 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 ... 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 ... Virtually every great insight in this book comes in this form: from a position of childlike alienation to the world ... 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?
The book gallops along at a brisk pace, rich with cultural touchstones of the time, and one finishes hungry for more. I reread The Idiot before reading Either/Or and after almost 800 cumulative pages, I still wasn’t sated. Batuman possesses a rare ability to successfully flood the reader with granular facts, emotional vulnerability, dry humor, and a philosophical undercurrent without losing the reader in a sea of noise ... What makes a life or story exceptional enough to create art? What art is exceptional, entertaining, and engaging enough to sustain nearly a thousand pages? Selin’s existential crisis within the collegiate crucible haunts every thoughtful reader ... The novel stands on its own as a rich exploration of life’s aesthetic and moral crossroads as a space to linger — not race through. Spare me sanctimonious fictional characters locked in the anguish of their regretful late twenties and early thirties: May our bold heroine Selin return to campus and stir up more drama before departing abroad again.
While Ms. Batuman’s witty, memoiresque novels of ideas may not ultimately attain such a monumental scale [as Proust], she has struck a rich lode that, perhaps down the line, could lead her from questions about love to questions about mortality and time ... What elevates this far above the typical campus novel is Ms. Batuman’s wry perspective ... Selin’s observations are frequently hilarious, sometimes touching and always original ... There’s both a sweet innocence and a sophisticated meta aspect to all this, a level on which Either/Or is about how Selin (and her creator) came to create the very book we’re reading ... Charming, hyper-literary ... To be continued, we hope.
Batuman’s success in Either/Or is how thoroughly she exploits the gap between Selin’s scepticism about the creation and the consequences of literature and her narrator’s wonderfully idiosyncratic comic voice ... Her story has much in common with the picaresque; episodic in structure, filled with acquaintances, misadventures and strangers whose motives are questionable, it is meandering rather than propulsive ... Either/Or does not exactly conclude; rather, a third volume seems almost inevitable.
Either/Or shares none of the chastity of its predecessor ... It is as if Batuman set out to respond to her detractors and...couldn’t help overachieving in the process. But the sex is not gratuitous ... The novel meanders along as she experiments with sensualism. As Selin bounces from one experience...to the next, Either/Or never gets tied down to any one story line. Batuman is not about to concoct some equivalent to the marriage plot; an aesthetic life necessitates narratological promiscuity ... The sequel is a more explicit künstlerroman than its antecedent ... Either/Or could double as a syllabus. Batuman’s newest narrative is propelled by Selin’s encounters with various works of art ... With the raw sincerity and droll insight into the rarefied world of academia that readers will remember from Batuman’s previous books, Selin recounts her initial toe-dip into hedonism ... One of the criticisms levied at The Idiot was that Selin seemed to lack a political consciousness. However one comes down on the debate over whether literary fiction should be held to such a standard, Either/Or is enriched by Batuman’s decision to raise the stakes of the novel’s central theme ... As for what kind of life is worth reading about, some will no doubt be prompted to wonder just that after closing Either/Or ... Plenty of people might ask themselves why they should bother with a whole novel about an antic undergrad obsessed with the dilemmas of art-making. I confess I felt a tinge of the same vexation ... Perhaps it should be enough to say of reading Either/Or that I enjoyed the experience.
Selin embarks on a quest to move past Ivan, get her groove back and enjoy a hot girl summer, but these classic literary-heroine pursuits will play out in entirely unexpected and hilarious ways, in part because Selin's so skilled at noticing flourishes of the bizarre within the mundane ... While love's pursuit provides the surface tension of Either/Or, Selin also investigates the nature of conquest and resistance, dominance and submission ... Either/Or is a chronicle of experience that will leave Batuman's fans clamoring for an account of Selin's junior year.
I’m not sure what I think about Either/Or, ... Did I like these books? Yes, so much that I felt bereft when I finished them. Batuman’s fiction is immersive and funny. She somehow extracts a meticulous accuracy of expression and high level of thought from an invitingly casual tone and unfussy prose in a way that seems effortless, even inevitable. But, on a conceptual level, these novels also left me itchy, as though I had absorbed the tendency of Batuman’s narrator and autofictional alter ego, Selin Karadag, to overthink things, to get mired in questions and take everything personally ... Don’t read Either/Or without reading The Idiot ... The tension between wanting to feel as though she is living a coherent narrative versus her unwillingness to be bound by any script is not easily resolved for Selin. Not much is, really, and her narration is peppered with an abundance of unanswerable questions that suggest an illusory, galaxy-brain-meme kind of depth — but actually function as markers of confusion ... It’s unreasonable to expect a 19-year-old to have all the answers, but was it also unreasonable for me to wish that the novel would do more than replicate Selin’s bewilderment? ... How and what fiction should be...is a major preoccupation of Batuman’s and also the heart of my ambivalence ... I’ll admit I sometimes wanted Either/Or to reach for more, to be a little bigger, to stretch outside the confines of Selin, but, in the end, I’ll read as many books about Selin as Batuman wants to write. It’s all good.
Readers of Elif Batuman’s delightful first novel, The Idiot, will need no introduction to its sequel, Either/Or, which shares both its pleasures and its limitations ... The Idiot takes place in 1995, primarily at Harvard University, where Selin is a freshman. Either/Or, set the following year, cheerfully offers more of the same ... Whimsical, relatively plotless ... The joys of Batuman’s fiction lie not so much in plot or the development of characters, but rather in Selin herself—her lively voice, her comic observations, and her marriage of literature and philosophy with the potentially oppressive banality of undergraduate life.
Batuman is demonstrably, incontrovertibly a good writer—but is she a good novelist? ... An awareness of Selin’s conceptual limitations is never far from the surface of Either/Or. On almost every page, the reader senses a second presence: a more knowing Selin ... Her uncertain, ingenuous voice lies somewhere between charming and grating. At times, her cluelessness seems exaggerated ... It’s clear Batuman is taking pains not only to read literature as though she did not have advanced degrees in the subject, but also to imagine herself back into a frame of mind in which the rhetorical question is the most natural way to pose a new thought and a cliché the best way to describe a strong emotion ... Confession serves a dual purpose, not only inoculating the text against potential criticisms, but cloaking it in the mantle of transgression: of course, the novel we are reading now is the one Selin thinks she’s not allowed to write ... By the end, I’d been convinced of the merits of Batuman’s experiment in life-as-art-as-art—its theoretical underpinnings, its value as feminist critique ... If only because Batuman is a wonderful writer, I hope—selfishly—that she sets out to write a wonderful novel next.
Even readers who feel Flaubert was closer to the mark than Kierkegaard when he counseled being orderly in one's life in order to be fierce and original in one's work--as if it's not a question of either/or--will savor this novel.Either/Or is that rare second novel that is superior to the first.
In Either/Or, Selin is now a sophomore, still reading constantly, still overidentifying. And yet suddenly more is happening to her. In writing Selin, Batuman seems to be puzzling out what differentiates a novel from a description of a consciousness reading and thinking and accumulating knowledge ... This novel feels like an experiment with eventfulness ... Either/Or picks up more or less where The Idiot left off ... The novel has the same wry tone—with Selin as a conduit for Batuman’s brilliant, funny observations—but it is characterized by a shift: Selin is ready to stop thinking about living and start doing it ... For all the activity in Either/Or, however, there still doesn’t seem to be much shape to these events. There’s a plotlessness to Selin’s sophomore year ... Either/Or might seem less strange [than The Idiotat first glance...but it is arguably a more unusual work in its attempt to hold onto both this conventional plot and its literary critical bent ... Maybe the novel can be as plotless as life and still hang together; maybe it can be both a reading notebook and a quest. The dramatic close of Either/Or, after all, is not a big event but a shift in Selin’s mind that would be imperceptible, except that it has been rendered to us as seismic, something big happening in someone’s head.
... the relationship between her fiction and non-fiction is one of the most interesting things about Batuman’s writing ... Her essays display the same combination of acute intelligence and comedy that suffuses the novels ... hard not to read some gently self-undermining commentary on Batuman’s own novelistic practice into a passage in which Selin describes the experience of taking a creative-writing class for the first time ... a richly suggestive and amusing book.
... a sequel that amplifies the meaning of its predecessor while expanding its philosophical ambit — in short, the best kind ... Part of what makes Selin such a funny — and refreshing — narrator is the way she bristles at categorizations and binaries.
There’s an audacity here: meandering adolescence as rich, worthwhile subject; an unwillingness to pander to the reader’s longing for plot. There’s also impudence, of which Batuman is, of course, aware ... Both novels are charming and made me laugh. I became convinced Batuman is infinitely smarter than I am, got bored sometimes and then was embarrassed by my boredom, certain it was proof of my own dullness, abashed in the knowledge that I speak only one language (Batuman speaks seven) and never finished War and Peace ... There is no real breakthrough for readers who want to really feel what Selin is going through. This seems consistent, though ... lacks shape and impact, but then so does youth. We often fail to register life’s consequences when they come. Or more like: Consequence is sometimes like a mist that slips inside us, creeping and accruing, silent and ineffable at first, until 20 years later we try to write a book (or a review) and realize all the ways that certain bits of time and space have lived and grown and shifted in us since. We realize too that there’s something elemental about that time — when we knew what we didn’t want but hadn’t figured out how to pursue what we might want instead; when we were still dumb enough, regardless of how smart we were, to think that if we just read more, thought more, lived more, one day we might finally understand.
... also a miscalculation, but its project is more ambitious and so its errors more interesting. By the fourth page, there are hints that Batuman is up to something new ... The widening gap between Selin and Batuman makes for a more provocative tension between narrator and author—Selin is no longer just ridiculous; now, possibly, she is wrong. The debate at hand is still broadly that of politics and the novel, but the concerns have coalesced more vividly ... A possible advantage of combining the two projects, to put it in MFA terms that Batuman would despise, is that it allows her to show-not-tell. Batuman does not explain that heteronormativity in the
canon is bad. Instead, we watch as Selin compares her own novel-life to the novel-lives of Kierkegaard’s young girl, Breton’s Nadja, Freud’s Dora, and James’s Isabel Archer, among many others. In doing so, Selin absorbs the norms of concision and of heterosexuality that Batuman will go on to reject in writing and life ... one gets the sense of a writer capable of throwing great distances who nevertheless, out of a sense of duty or novelty, ties her own hands ... These blights on the page are all the more painful because they are not gaffes but deliberate, ill-judged choices. Batuman is capable of much better.
... a delightful invitation to reunite with Selin ... Selin’s voice is notably more mature, more reflective and perhaps more droll, and yet she’s still true to herself as she tries to figure out who, exactly, that self is and can be ... The 1990s technology is a throwback and a joy, and it’s fascinating to consider the ways that email and the internet have changed and shaped everything in our world, from relationships to travel. There’s humor in the lived experiences of parties, classes, alcohol and sex, and Batuman’s balancing of all these elements is remarkable ... Our present moment will change, and technology will continue to evolve, but undoubtedly Selin’s voice will remain a gem.
We learn to trust Batuman’s way of capturing how feeling can leverage temporality ... As the book goes on, Selin poses unanswered and unanswerable questions that are by turns funny, profound, and sometimes both. These accumulating, inwardly directed queries generate the book’s momentum more than the events of the exterior world. Occasionally, you get the feeling Batuman has been waiting to deploy some of these one-liners since her actual undergraduate conversations in 1996. Yet miraculously, they work perfectly in this book, which moves unpredictably at the pace of deliberation ... As I got further into Either/Or, all the things I’d found unsatisfactory and even irritating about The Idiot gradually started to make sense. Together, the two books give an honest depiction of how growing up actually works ... The progressive structure of the conventional coming-of-age novel can’t account for the long, uneven periods of processing that really enable emotional, intellectual, or artistic development; this baggy sequel is necessary because growing up, Batuman suggests, can’t be contained in a single plot arc ... manages to be easy to read while provoking hard thoughts — and its thrillingly sudden ending dismisses the very idea of 'endings.' It’s truer to life for a story to unfurl unpredictably, to spill out of its own leaky container.
This is the central pleasure of reading Elif Batuman’s ferociously intelligent fiction: the thrill of encountering things you already half-knew, rendered in language with lyrical precision ... The final 100 pages of Either/Or are full of sex, if not quite story. First it happens, painfully and bloodily, with the man from the party, then with two men in Turkey. This is the point at which this very good novel really takes off and becomes the kind of book you want everyone you know to read. Batuman, it turns out, is a writer of sex to rival Nicholson Baker. Surely these must be some of the best descriptions of female sexual experience in literature: funny, oblique, serious, patient, never obvious, always true. Here, as throughout her writing, Batuman demonstrates that her great strength is her ability to paddle back upriver to a time before familiarity.
... cannot be understood without its predecessor. Picking up immediately where the first book finished—sophomore year—there’s something surprising in such a direct sequel ... Even the most minute experience is worth chronicling if Batuman’s eye for absurdity can find some purchase. This commitment to real life; both praised and criticized in The Idiot, also had the beneficial side effect of suspense ... like life, anything could happen next, but this fidelity also left the reader in the lurch, abruptly breaking off a richly realized narrative. How, then, to continue? ... Unfortunately, it’s rare to have a second decades-old manuscript lying around. This leaves Batuman with the curiously historical task of how to recreate the same voice at an even greater remove. While Batuman is remarkable at conjuring experiences now solidly in 'lost time,' the sharpness of Either/Or can seem slightly turned down, perhaps suffering from the unusual situation of there being another novel so similar—her own ... the pleasures of Either/Or, if taken on its terms, are considerable ... it’s a treat to hear Batuman’s thoughts about nearly any work of literature ... Selin’s second act might not be the advance one hoped for, but that was never promised in the first place. Batuman is still investigating how experience transforms, how that everyday shapelessness starts to feel like something inevitable. So far, no conclusion. But in the meantime—in the spirit of the aesthetic life—why not live inside the style?
... shares its predecessor’s dryly understated wit, but it does so with a far more conventional structure. By the end of Either/Or, Selin has definitely learned something ... Because Selin spends less time in Either/Or hiding from her feelings than she did in The Idiot, this novel has less of its predecessor’s cool polish. This book is shaggier and less disciplined, but also more vigorous, and Selin has become a stronger and more definite character. When she chooses to veil her emotions, it is only to make the inevitable unveiling all the more devastating.
Batuman’s brainy, attentive, outspoken narrator grapples with the absurd (literary pretension, academics, sex) and the sublime (literature, music, sex) ... Through it all, valiant Selin reads and ponders the human condition, culminating in a breath-catching ending that will leave spellbound readers hoping for more from Batuman’s bright and witty adventurer of conscience.
Effervescent ... Observant, defiant, and newly on antidepressants, Selin approaches the mystery of human relations with a beginner’s naivete and sharp intelligence ... Batuman’s light touch and humor are brought to bear on serious questions, enabling the novel to move quickly ... As accomplished as The Idiot was, this improves upon it, and Batuman’s already sharp chops as a novelist come across as even more refined in these pages. Readers will be enraptured.
This is not a plot-driven novel, so readers who like a lot of action may not enjoy Selin’s philosophizing or penchant for deep analysis. But Selin is a disarming narrator, tossing off insights that are revelatory, moving, and laugh-out-loud funny—sometimes all at once—and it’s exciting to watch her become the author of her own story ... Another delightfully cerebral and bighearted novel from a distinctive voice in contemporary fiction.