In Elif Batuman’s ‘Either/Or,’ a Witty and Perceptive Young Woman Returns

By Elif Batuman
360 pages. Penguin Press. $27.

Elif Batuman’s first two books, “The Possessed,” a memoir, and “The Idiot,” a novel, took their titles from Dostoyevsky. The title of her second novel, “Either/Or,” is on loan from Kierkegaard. Batuman has a gift for making the universe seem, somehow, like the benevolent and witty literary seminar you wish it were.

Kierkegaard’s “Either/Or,” published in 1843, is a book about how to live. It pits the aesthetic life, a life of books, art and sensual pleasure, against the ethical life, one of marriage and responsibility. What are the benefits and drawbacks of each? Are we screwed either way?

Batuman’s narrator, Selin, is a sophomore at Harvard. She’s caught between these poles of existence, and she’s obsessed with Kierkegaard’s book. She’s consumed with books in general. She’s the sort of person who will avoid a deed that seems “anti-novelistic.”

It’s novelistic to hurl yourself into life. Edna O’Brien asked, “Why can’t life be lived at the pitch of books?” Selin wonders that, too. She’s ready to leap. But she’s never been kissed or asked on a date and, like the novelist she hopes to be, she overthinks everything. Maybe if you leap, it’s into a volcano. She’s like the kid on the schoolyard who tries (and tries) to get on the spinning roundabout, but it’s going at murderous speed.

You might remember Selin. In “The Idiot,” she was a freshman. She fell for Ivan, whom a friend referred to as “a seven-foot-tall Hungarian guy who stares at everyone like he’s trying to see through their souls.” Selin followed Ivan to Hungary. The experience was confusing.

I gave “The Idiot” a mixed review in The Times. I admired Batuman’s inquisitive intelligence — what a mass of sensibility she is — but felt the book seemed tentative, a peakless panorama.

“The Idiot” has grown on me. Rereading big chunks of it recently, I felt more keenly Batuman’s judgment, her attention, her discrimination, her understatement and irony. There’s a kind of drama in the way her thoughts coalesce and disband. “Either/Or” is an even better, more soulful novel. Selin is more confident and, more important, so is Batuman.

Elif Batuman, whose new novel is “Either/Or.”Credit…Valentyn Kuzan

“Either/Or” is basically a year in the life of an ambitious, bookish Harvard student circa 1996. We read what Selin reads — Pushkin, Babel, Freud, Chekhov and, less happily for her, Martin Amis — and watch her ruthlessly shake down her life, comparing it to the lives she encounters in fiction.

This novel wins you over in a million micro-observations. Departments at Harvard seem arbitrary to Selin, who wonders why there isn’t a department of love. She writes: “I wished there was a class where they could teach you how to calculate the right time to die. The current arrangement — for everyone to sit there piously waiting for whenever their body happened to shut down — seemed so far from ideal.” Selin, word-drunk, wonders why books of poems are so expensive when they have so few words.

She does occasionally climb out of her own expensively educated head. At a Pilates class, the fights over mat placement are “deeply stressful, in a way that made me feel like I understood the primal conflicts for land that formed the basis of modern history.” She wonders if this is what the Palestinians and Israelis feel like.

She attends a glittering, sadomasochism-themed party for a literary magazine. What’s revealed to her, in a typically canny observation, is “the true face of all parties: how they were all, in one way or another, sadomasochism-themed.”

The brain isn’t the only organ in this novel. One by one, Selin’s friends and roommates are picked off, romantically and sexually, and she hates it. When people hook up, she thinks, it often means new and more tedious people are suddenly around.

About sex, she asks, “Why couldn’t we be excited about something else?” She wonders why her happiness should have to “depend on my ability to find some doofus who would tell me I was special. I already knew I was special. So what did I need the doofus for?”

When Selin does begin to have sex, she is so perceptive that the scenes are a wonder.

“I like this fabric,” he said, fingering it for a moment before pulling my top over my head: something I hadn’t experienced since age 6. How strange that this was like that — that the most adult thing was in some way like being a child. When he tossed the garment onto the floor, I resisted the urge to pick it up and fold it.

Sex leads to new problems. The men she admires in fiction, the ones who lead the aesthetic life she prizes, so often “ruin” young women and leave them. What does this lesson mean for a woman? Should she harden her heart? Is Selin a tiger cub, bringing home her first kill?

The last section of “Either/Or” takes Selin to Turkey, where she travels while reporting for the Let’s Go series of travel books. Batuman wrote about similar trips in her memoir; she’s an astute observer of the tropes of budget travel.

Selin frequently refers to the diary she keeps. She’s always juggling two books, one in which she reads and one in which she writes. Without them, she’s like Saturn without its rings.

Selin wants to be a novelist, but she fears she’s not capable of creating characters other than herself. Across three books, Batuman hasn’t tried to do that. In all three she has written about herself, or something very close to herself, in incremental, almost diaristic form, like an oyster secreting its shell.

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.

The aesthetic life or the ethical one? Does it have to be one or the other? In Kierkegaard’s “Either/Or,” the philosopher told us what we already sense — that we’ll have regrets either way.