Looking Back, Was I The Idiot?
Elif Batuman’s “Either/Or” illuminates the aftermath of an unusual relationship from my youth
Before we begin, I must confess to my bias. I am not an objective reader, so in some ways I have already failed. A few months before I read Elif Batuman’s debut novel The Idiot, I had a conversation with a friend that unlocked a safe in my brain. After, there was nowhere I could look without seeing what we let out.
It was spring, two years ago, and I was in the middle of moving out of the apartment I shared with a guy from Craigslist to an apartment I would share with my wife once the border opened (finally!). Which is to say that I took this phone call sitting on my bare mattress on the floor of a bare room with my back up against a bare wall. We were talking about writing, integrity, protecting one’s own vision, and so on. Then at the end of the call, Lena said to me:
“I have some gossip for you—do you remember XXXXXX?”
When I heard a sequel to The Idiot was coming, I was initially dismayed. How does one succeed a perfect novel? Would a sequel aim to complete what had been left so perfectly incomplete?
The Idiot follows Selin Karadağ through her first year at Harvard and an intense and maybe-reciprocated infatuation with an older student named Ivan. In the end, nothing happens—they don’t have sex. Many reviewers were upset by this. Dwight Garner, reviewing the novel for The New York Times, called this The Idiot’s “only flaw.” Yet, to my mind, after Selin spends the whole year guessing at what Ivan feels—trying to make meaning out of the random and not-so-random signifiers that he volleys at her—receiving any kind of closure in such a relationship would feel pat, easy, and soulless, narratively speaking.
The Idiot is about being an idiot: eighteen-nineteen, so smart yet so stupid, knowing so little and wanting to know more, waiting for revelation, always on the precipice of some great realization of your own humiliation. Ivan is a new, shiny, grown-up thing that Selin can hold up to the light and turn this way and that, a great unknown, a nut for her incredible brain to crack. What could be more enticing? They roleplay lovers in Russian class, though he rarely acknowledges her when they cross paths on campus. He has a girlfriend about whom he is openly lukewarm. He sends Selin strange emails fraught with double and missed meanings—about clowns and poetry, “the seduced atom” and its “energies that seduce people.” “I summon you words, o my stars,” he writes. Like a lab rat suckling cocaine from its cage bottle, Selin is hooked. She tells him she loves him. (We, the readers, collectively go Nooooo.) He tells her they shouldn’t speak anymore, then continues to email her.
The effect is dizzying: “You were so ready to jump into a reality the two of you made up,” her friend Svetlana tells her. “But by now you’re so, so far from all the landmarks. You’re just drifting in space.”
Ivan is a longing man—“an aesthete,” “poetic and lachrymose,” who (quoting Mark McGurl) “[seizes] the historical privilege of romantic indecision and [wields] it as a kind of soft power.” When they meet over the summer in Hungary, he introduces her to his family—a big deal for Selin, a sign that he will now perhaps “operate on the level of a real person.” Still, in the end, nothing happens. “Nothing” “happens.” Ivan takes her into his arms for a long embrace; the physicality of his presence, of his body against hers, is overwhelming. Then he lets go, and walks away. There are no answers. “I hadn’t learned anything at all,” Selin concludes.
The Idiot was a refreshing departure from our contemporary offerings of literature about young womanhood—not particularly disaffected, or defused by a tidy romantic closure. Would a sequel undo what it did so well, by, as it were, doing something, maybe even it?
Here’s what I remember about XXXXX: The hugeness of the feeling inside of me, hot and anxious and ecstatic all at once. Texting and emailing and messaging all day (goodnight <3 and good morning <3). Talking late into the night on the couch; buzzing with liquor and happiness; my brain rattling in my skull. Not knowing, not knowing. Talking about all the things you weren’t supposed to talk about. Dancing on drunken feet at the wedding after most of the other guests were gone.
And then, after the worst had happened: Thinking about XXXXX. Thinking about everything I’d done wrong. A quote shared on XXXXX‘s blog: “That time you confused a lesson for a soulmate.” An email (one of several) from a mutual friend: “i do think that if XXXXX knew how you felt about what happened XXXXX would try to make it better.” Losing my place in conversations. Losing my train of thought. My TA trying so hard as I nodded and mhm-ed as if I understood what she was saying; forcing back tears until they came out of my nose instead. (Did you know tears could do that? Me neither.) Failing and dropping classes. Posting on my blog: “I would like to know if there is an after. I would like to know how there can be.”
Lena, that same mutual friend, years later: “I have some gossip for you—do you remember XXXXX?”
In Either/Or, the sequel to The Idiot, Selin returns to Harvard for her second year of study, anxiously anticipating her next encounter with Ivan, whom she hasn’t heard from since Hungary. When she logs back into her school computer, she finds a three-month-old response to an angry email she sent him, reeling from his hot and cold behavior. “I am very shocked that you see me as such a monster,” he had written, wringing injured innocence from his professed bafflement like a wet towel.
Thus Batuman sets the stage for Either/Or: a novel about the aftermath, or, about what happens, after—in the absence of an explanation. Either/Or doubles down on the end of The Idiot by reinvesting in not knowing, in the inconceivable, the impossible, the unclosed. Not for any lack of trying on Selin’s part. She attempts to confront Ivan with the contradictions between his words and his actions, but he responds with a poem: “I’m just a mass of dishonesties,” “come dance with me again.” Ivan’s friend Peter tells her not to listen to Zita—Who? thinks Selin—because “Ivan does strange things sometimes, but he’s a good person,” and any “misunderstanding” can be settled if she would only talk to him. Ivan’s ex Zita is the worst disappointment of all. Is it misogynistic to say that, in these situations, women often are? By the time she and Selin connect, there’s been some change in the weather, and she assures Selin that Ivan “got into complicated situations sometimes, but it was because he had a big heart.”
So: people fail us. They respond in cliché and predictable and unhelpful ways. Thank god, then, for literature! Selin encounters by chance a secondhand copy of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or (the namesake of the novel), which promises to illuminate the difference between an aesthetic and an ethical life—but she finds a different kind of answer entirely in a novella contained within. “The Seducer’s Story” is about a man who entraps a young girl into a confounding relationship. His methods are covert, coded, such that he could
“[leave] off … without a word having been let fall of love, let alone a declaration, a promise. Yet it would have happened, and the unhappy girl … would constantly have to contend with the doubt that the whole thing might only have been imagination.”
Selin, who so often found herself at a rare loss for words to describe her dynamic with Ivan, is stunned. Her relationship with Ivan was so rare and singular—“like something new we had invented”—as to be illegible from the outside (and also from the inside.) Yet here is a text in which her own experiences look back at her. The qualities of an ideal target of seduction: someone who “[has] suffered,” who “[has] always been alone,” and who, as a result, is not drawn to “what usually beckons … to a young girl.” “Had my family background been useful to Ivan?” Selin asks herself, queasy with recognition. So begins a kind of archival work, building an account that has otherwise been denied to her.
In the first major review of Either/Or, Jennifer Wilson writes that “Selin’s encounters with various works of art […] teach her that her dalliance with Ivan, baffling and torturous though it had been, was good material.” “She is reassured,” apparently, that “her agonies will not be for naught.” Selin’s abstraction from her Turkish background is a political theme, but her kinship with these women who have been instrumentalized in the personhood of men, of male artists, is not. In the end, Wilson writes, “I decided that Batuman is warning us (and Selin, not that she’s listening) against just that sort of fervent need to identify with fictional characters, to see their demons and desires reflected in our own lives.” In other words, perhaps Selin is reading too far into it.
I feel like maybe we read different books. (This review also describes the embrace in Hungary as “a brotherly hug.”) But then, like Selin, I am conscious of my own desperate tabulations. What “The Seducer’s Diary” and Nadja and Eugene Onegin are for Selin, The Idiot was for me. A wishy-washy “need to identify” (how frivolous, how womanly) cannot capture how these texts offer Selin a lifeline from the confusion of the previous year, when she was so lost, unable to “see the common denominator, to understand what counts as a thing,” or to explain it, any of it, to her mother.
The worst part is the endings. So many of these seduced girls go crazy, like the eponymous Nadja, who must be put neatly away in an asylum as the book resolves—so that the book can resolve. For the hero, the story ends; for everyone else, life trudges on unbearably. Is this not what happened in The Idiot? Selin will not be like these girls. She decides to be more like their authors, instead.
I had never known how to talk about XXXXX, so I didn’t. Instead, I built a ship from the memory of our relationship, and I keelhauled myself against it every night. I needed to be held accountable, if only by myself, because if I forgot that I was a bad person, what kind of person would I be?
As time passes, what was embarrassing and hurtful becomes funny and sad. Then, sometimes—as after that fateful phone call—embarrassing and hurtful once more. I want to have a sense of humor about it. But whom does this serve? The writer’s impulse is to delve with professional distance into the what and the why. (See also: The Idiot; Either/Or.) The therapist I began to see in the aftermath of that phone call asked me to give up on chasing after small details, to work with how it felt, how it impacted me, instead.
“I realize there’s no way to really, objectively know,” I told her. I had no intention of stopping. I am very good at therapy, or, actually, very bad.
My old blog became one source of truth. In the first year of after: oblique mentions, sadposting nightposting subposts. “feeling so run-down and awful and useless,” “feeling very anxious about giving myself to other people lately,” “constantly trying to find moments of meaning in life because i am an empty shell of a human being!!!!!!!!!!!” One night in January, just under a year after: “there is nothing good enough in my life to be worth this. there is no compelling reason to stay.” I have no memory of this night, or of the inciting incident that apparently set me off, according to follow-up post the next day:
(this is about what happened last year, if yr aware of the circumstances & would rather not read pls keep scrolling by <3)
last night was terrible, today is terrible, and in between I dreamed about XXXXX for the first time all year
and it was just. some glimpse of another world where reconciliation would be possible or even desirable—one where XXXXX didn’t think what happened wasn’t a big deal, one where i wasn’t such a fucking mess
and it was awkward and quiet and nice and i miss XXXXX so fucking much
and the worst of it is that even with how things went down, if the chance came now i probably would forgive XXXXX and take all the blame on myself, even though i’d never be able to trust XXXXX again, because i’ve never been so in love with another person in my life and i miss feeling that easy and warm around someone and i miss XXXXX, specifically and horribly
Jan 30, 2016 – LIKE REBLOG
So that was how it felt, then. That was how it impacted me.
It’s interesting—after starting therapy, I began to dream about XXXXX again. In one dream, I was touring a winery, and XXXXX was there. We smiled awkwardly at each other, and walked together through a glass-walled cellar. Not talking. It wasn’t like it was before; I was older, as I am now, and more settled in myself. This was odd for both of us. But better, too, because in this impossible dream, we were both the kind of people who could acknowledge fault, and grow.
I was reminded of this, in Either/Or, when Selin emails Ivan asking his forgiveness. He grants it. He does not ask for the same.
Early on in Either/Or, when sex still seems like something that happens to other people, Svetlana tells Selin that the appeal of it is “to have clear evidence of being so desired.” Like many things Svetlana says, Selin takes this as gospel. Sex with men isn’t about men; it’s about how being with men makes women feel.
Structurally, Either/Or is a series of interconnected studies on how men make women feel, from different angles, with different brush strokes. For Selin, despite the obliterating pain she experiences when putting even just a tampon inside of her, “the idea of being penetrated and dominated” is admittedly exciting. Men make you feel “slender and pliant,” “like the smallest and most delicate person.” Being with a man makes her feel like a woman in a new and meaningful way. When she finally does have sex, the euphoria of submission is almost worth (or is, perhaps, an extension of?) the agony of penetration. Yet, Batuman writes, once it is over, the feeling of accomplishment fades. “I felt sorry and anxious, like I was back on the clock again,” Selin confesses.
In the years since The Idiot’s release, especially during the Trump administration, Batuman has undergone a self-described “rude awakening” about, among other things, the pressures and mores that had shaped her youth. Either/Or is, in Batuman’s own words, “an attempt to dramatize some of the insights of [Shulamith] Firestone and Adrienne Rich,” second wave feminists whose theory she had recently encountered for the first time and been transformed by. The above passages have a whiff of essentialism about them—and yet, they feel true, do they not? On Batuman’s website, there is an excerpt from Firestone’s The Dialectics of Sex, which states that, for men, the defining question in relationships is, “how do I get someone to love me without her demanding an equal commitment in turn?”
A feminist reading of the duology has been conspicuously absent from the greater conversation, despite its anti-normative sensibility. Selin’s rejection of “[experiences] designed for you, to make you feel a certain way” is a major part of her self-concept, the thing that sets her apart from Svetlana and her boring boyfriend. Hence, the aesthetic life: sex without emotional attachments, adulthood without marriage, and womanhood without going crazy, if Selin can swing it.
But what is sex with men but an experience designed for you, to make you feel a certain way? As Selin discovers, finding men to have sex with is easy. For once you’re on the same team, working toward the same goal; before, “it was like there was something jamming the door.” Batuman recently profiled French filmmaker Céline Sciamma, whose lesbian masterwork Portrait of a Lady on Fire she names as another influence. In Portrait, Héloïse asks Marianne, “Do all lovers feel they’re inventing something?” Batuman observes that “plenty of lovers aren’t inventing anything. They’re replaying scenes from movies.”
In Either/Or, sex and straightness slowly become apparent (to the reader, if not to Selin) as a currency exchanged for entry into, and navigation through, a world structured by misogyny. At Harvard, sex is part of the graduation into adulthood and induction into a new language of relations. There is an implicit pressure, but it’s not so bad. Later, while adventuring alone in Turkey, travel guidance can be bartered for dinner; a ride turns into a request for sex. Indeed, though Selin acknowledges that sex is “important”, “universal,” and “canonical”—like Shakespeare—it is also “painful,” “pointless,” and “[unsatisfying].” Arguing with a man who is behaving insanely towards her also feels “important and universal.” As she is being pressured into sex that she does not want, she questions, maturely, whether she is the problem.
Is this what it means to be a woman? Is there no way out, no way to be a writer instead? On a plane at the end of the novel, she begins to read Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, and is struck by Isabel’s description of “the secret:” an arrangement of “truth” and “mutual relations” and “horror” within the world that arranges it against her. Once again, this passage seems to Selin to reflect her situation with Ivan—yet also, in its invocation of an “architectural vastness,” to transcend it, addressing something bigger, worse, and more resolute.
My Ivan was not a cis straight man, and our situation was an intrinsically queer one. The heterosexuals do not have a monopoly on unequal dynamics and bad behavior.
In graduate school, I met a woman—funny, brilliant, also a writer—with whom I quickly became entranced. But when Lexy and I began to text all day, every day, a cold fist of fear gripped me tightly. Was I reading too much into it? I felt eighteen again. I felt like an idiot.
Overreading is a very queer methodology. Take, for instance, Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which has no score, a sparse script, and, as a result, a richly textured silence that invites the audience deeply into its world. Mariane and Heloise uncover their desire in this silence, their gazes interested, investigative. Regardez-moi, Mariane tells Heloise: look at me. Throw aside the usual symbols and codes! Seek out the silence instead!
In Either/Or, Selin’s friend Lakshmi introduces her to écriture féminine, a French literary movement championed by the likes of Hélène Cixous, who aimed to invent a new feminist mode free of indoctrinated patriarchal thought. Batuman identifies a similar, anti-disciplinary freedom in Sciamma’s oeuvre: the freedom to “[do] what you want,” and, crucially, “to not do what you don’t want.”
And maybe you see where I’m going with this. I did warn you that I would not be an objective reader.
There is a secret buried in Either/Or, a larger story composed of pieces that can barely be made out—there and then gone, remembered and then forgotten as needed. Selin worries at this secret like a loose tooth. You have to be looking for it to see it, I think.
“Do you think it’s weird that we spend so much time together?” Svetlana asked me afterward. “It’s almost like we’re in a relationship.”
“Hm…” I said, stalling. Weren’t we in a relationship?
“This is how much time I would expect to spend with a boyfriend,” Svetlana clarified.
“Oh, right,” I said.
It has to be pointed out that Selin thinks more—more deeply, and more erotically—about the women in her life than she does the men. Even Ivan is more of a figment than a person. Shortly after the above exchange, Selin asks Svetlana, “Do you ever think it would be easier if we could go out with girls?” (“Svetlana,” Batuman tells us, “didn’t answer right away.”) There was a “physical response” to Ivan, of course, feelings which Selin had never felt around a girl. “On the other hand,” she thinks, “I usually hadn’t felt them in Ivan’s presence, either; it was more when he wasn’t there.”
She goes on:
“How much more fun and relaxing it would be to pet Svetlana’s shining golden hair, to tell her how pretty she was and to watch her get more pretty, as she always did when someone complimented her. Her body wanted to be complimented, and I knew just what to tell her, so why couldn’t I?”
Aloud, she says only, “It just feels like girls are at least something to think about.” Ultimately, she dismisses these thoughts as “childish and unrealistic.” That’s not what love is, she thinks. Love is “death” and “madness”—it’s what happens to women in novels, under the auspices of men.
In “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Adrienne Rich describes lesbian possibility as “an engulfed continent which rises fragmented to view from time to time only to become submerged again.” I often find myself reading like some kind of unhinged lesbian sleuth. I text passages with no context to my friends, like, Do you see it? Do you see what I see?
But sometimes I don’t have to look too hard. In Either/Or, Selin recalls staying up all night talking with a friend, Jordan, on the last night of summer camp: “I had never felt so awake, and didn’t want to stop feeling that way.” For the next year, she and Jordan exchanged long letters made out of improvised materials—“brown bags, wrapping paper, continuous-feed printer paper.” Selin’s mother, we are told, had not liked Jordan, and upon seeing one of these letters asked if she was a lesbian.
Off-handedly, Selin mentions that her mother once asked whether she was a lesbian. Selin denied it; however, she reports with some perturbation that Jordan did eventually come out. “Was that something my mother had been right about?”
While some reviews of Either/Or have acknowledged Batuman’s interest in Rich, a queer analysis, like a feminist one, seems somehow verboten. To speculate so extravagantly about the sexuality of an autofictional character, as I have done, is understandably discomforting. It’s true that Selin only thinks about queerness in passing, and spends the last third of the novel having sex with men. It is also true that, in her profile of Sciamma, Batuman shares that her partner of several years is a woman. In a podcast for Public Books, she says a little more: that her partner is a lesbian for whom the formative, heteronormative myths and ideas “just didn’t attach” in the usual way. “I keep asking myself, what was it about me?” Batuman says.
In advance of writing this essay, I called up a couple of friends from undergrad.
Mara, my roommate, had met XXXXX a couple of times. “It seemed like a very adult thing you had,” she told me in her usual way: fast, astute, a little analytical. She said being around us made her feel young. “The depth, the focus, the intensity. And XXXXX was the North Star of every conversation we had.”
This I had not remembered. She told me that she’d been envious sometimes of the closeness of our relationship. “It didn’t seem to make you sad… to give endlessly,” she said at one point. “It seemed to make you really happy.”
I could hear noise, movement on the other side of the call—it sounded like she was in a café. I was sweating nervously as I acknowledged that it felt special. It made me feel special, at the time.
“Right,” she said, “ XXXXX had chosen you.”
The next day, I called Jess, whose couch I had slept on for a few bad weeks after everything went down. She had never met XXXXX, but I remembered that, on one distinct occasion, at a Nando’s just off St. George St, I had told her about how I was so in love with this person who was so great and smart and ethical and would therefore never return my feelings. I wondered if she remembered this as well.
“It was definitely more than once,” she said immediately.
Mortifying. I asked her to elaborate.
“There were so many aspects of a relationship—a romantic, sexual relationship I should say— but it was never officially called that,” she told me. “You had these thought spirals about it. You were always cycling back to “but XXXXX said this,” “ XXXXX did this,” and that came to define the relationship, instead of, you know, the fulsome experience of a real one.”
She asked what XXXXX‘s partner thought of it all. I said I didn’t know.
“XXXXX liked what XXXXX had in the relationship with you, until XXXXX didn’t,” Jess said. “It was like a box of fun that XXXXX could open up, but also put away. There was no extra effort or thought given to how this kind of relationship would be so confusing and devastating for you.”
Toward the end of our call, she told me, laughing, “I remember thinking, you know, “Maybe this is just how queer, poly relationships are?’”
“So did I!” I said, laughing too.
What was it about me? Besides youth and inexperience and a personal predilection for emotional black holes—was this another vulnerability? My desire to chart a new path, away from the social architecture that had always felt so alien and hostile; my misalignment with the usual practices and protocols, such that the landmarks and boundaries that might otherwise have answered my questions or clarified my position seemed ill fitting.
A month after we started dating—years before I ever heard of Elif Batuman—I gave Lexy a DIY collection of (bad) poetry I’d written for her. I called it THE FOOL. The cover was a picture of the tarot card, which I’ve always identified with: face turned to the sky joyously, one foot dangling off a ledge into open air.
The titular poem begins as follows:
i packed a bag
to find a door
in a house once built
stepped off a cliff
to find a door
at the dusted foot
of a darkened quarry
the dust stuck sullen at the hinges
but there are ruder ways through doors
than push or pull and
cruder things than dust have failed to stop me
I told her I liked her first, an act of courage that felt enormous, impossible—but New Year’s Eve, drunk, sitting on the washing machine in my friend’s basement apartment, anything was possible. I texted her: i like you and is that okay. Turns out: it was.
Landed in Russia after her flight with Henry James (“pretty sure … he was gay,”) Selin feels that at last she has made a choice under her own willpower. She went to Hungary for Ivan, and Turkey for Let’s Go!, but nobody had wanted her to go to Russia. “It was like when Isabel managed not to marry the guy with the cotton mills,” because “she had done what she preferred.”
“Was this the decisive moment of my life?” Selin wonders. Like The Idiot, Either/Or ends inconclusively, but here with a note of—I think—real possibility. Though she is still invested in a novelistic life, she is also surprised by a feeling of liberation, “of having finally stepped outside of the script.” “I was going to do the subtle, monstrous thing where you figured out what you were doing, and why,” Selin decides. I really hope she does.