Adolescence is a strange creature.. The longest days stretch out as if intent on making you realise your misery, and yet time seems to spin away from your grasp, congealing into a film reel of everything that’s managed to leave its mark. To find yourself on the cusp between adolescence—with it, the excuse of being young—and everything else is a terrifying one. This is what makes the campus novel so compelling; in campus novels, its protagonists have usually been left to their own devices for the first time. There is a long expanse of time in which their main job is to think and to become.
In Elif Batuman’s book, Either/Or, Selin—its protagonist—is starting her second year at Harvard. Batuman sat down with Anthonia Kehinde and Asli Oya at Second Home in Spitalfields to talk about her novel, the novel form, and the youthful tendency to make a religion out of the only things that seem to make sense. Novels should be about ‘the project of being alive’, Batuman said, and that’s precisely what her works The Idiot and Either/Or are centred around. Readers and critics alike have praised the relatability of the novels’ protagonist, Selin. Selin’s frustrations feel authentic and immediate. Books are the only ways she is able to make sense of her world, because nobody in real life is talking about how to live. It is through novels that she is able to observe people most intimately. Either/Or’s title has been cleverly snagged from Kiekergaard’s Either/Or, which only highlights Selin’s eventual discovery: that there is a disconnect between the aesthetic, subjective life she reads in books and the ethical, more objective one.
There is a culture of shame surrounding conventional expectations, the measures by which the “objective” life ultimately judges you by. Batuman recalled a scene in which Selin asks why her cousin was born—trying to understand why people are having kids when they don’t seem to want them at all—only to be reprimanded for implying that she wishes he didn’t exist. Romance is pre-packaged for people so that they only expect one ending: the one with marriage and a white picket fence. “It’s romance as ideology,” Batuman said when discussing the reasons behind the narrative’s focus on men and, with that, early sexual encounters. “... [it] makes women voluntarily give up their freedom,” she continued. She cited Adrienne Rich’s 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality”, which was “about a force that operates in our society that wrenches women’s energies from each other and into men.” This force is clearly evident in Selin’s experiences during her second year at Harvard. She questions why people are so excited about sex while remaining obsessed with fellow student Ivan—whom she fell for in The Idiot—despite the fact that he has moved halfway across the country. When she finally does have sex, she finds the experience underwhelming. “How pervasive it is, that women’s love is framed as inevitable,” Batuman added. Selin both feeds into the inevitability and resists against it, and it’s this struggle that makes the novel hit close to home.
Batuman also spoke about her process writing the novel; how it’d been written shortly after undergrad and then forgotten, only to rise to the surface because of a contractual obligation to write another book. She talked us through her initial expectations of what Either/Or would become; at first, Batuman had planned for it to be half novel, half essay collection. She had written the novel and sent it off to an authenticity reader, who had then asked why Selin was being made to suffer so much. The essays were intended to explain Selin’s suffering and outline the oppressive structures that Batuman wanted to critique. In the end, however, she decided that explaining the novel would only take away from it. I can’t help but agree. Seeing the world through her eyes is what makes Either/Or true to the experience of being young.
It was a strange experience hearing Batuman talk about the way most of us can only articulate the way we feel in retrospect, in the act of looking back.“The feelings are there,” she said. “The words come later.” As I write this, I’ve just closed the door on my first year of university. I’ve been thinking about how we become people and the specific ways we all make the same mistakes, how our younger selves are made and then remade over and over again in the rearview mirrors of our lives. I left the conversation with Elif Batuman feeling so full of love for my younger selves. There are so many things about the world that are inevitable. I’m glad life—and the search for it—is one of them.
The event was organised by In Book Company (@inbookcompany), a diverse literary space that brings readers and authors together, founded by Anthonia Kehinde and Asli Oya.
Edited by Maisie Allen, Literature Editor