Either/Or by Elif Batuman

This book took a rather long time before I started to understand what it was about.

I was going to remember or discover where everything came from. I was going to do the subtle, monstrous thing where you figured out what you were doing, and why.


I think it is a coming-of-age novel where the protaganist, Selin, reads coming-of-age novels to find out how she should be living her life or what to expect, to educate herself.

Selin is also attending creative writing classes and struggling with her imagination and whose story it is to tell. She remembers a story but once she tries to write it, she realises that if the main character narrates it, it feels patronising and if she becomes the narrator she feels fraudulent because she had been protected from the things she was telling in the story.

The creative class ended, and theoretically I never had to read or write about diners again. But the seed of panic had been planted. My eyes had been opened to the dissimilarity between the kind of writing I was always doing, and an actual novel.


Surely, that is not the role of a creative writing class?

So, there’s a gap between her reading and writing and this was not the only gap she lived in. The gap between the reading she was undertaking to guide her life and her actual life was also quite telling. It occurred possibly because the books she read were all about young women’s coming-of-age written by men. Should she live the aesthetic life or the ethical life? Beauty or morals? At one point Selin realises that two very beautiful young women are not the same thing. One is funny and interested in others, the other talks about her addiction to one cigarette a day for hours, boring everyone who is not swayed by her beauty.

The writing hops around like an untrained mind, lighting on one thing and another. Selin attends Pilates with her friend Svetlana, who I love for her one-liners, and then her train of thoughts go from trying to place her mat in the room and finding it like ‘the primal conflicts for land that formed the basis of modern history’, the confidence of the other people in the class and their ‘rights’ for having arrived first and staking a claim and ending up wondering whether this was how the Israelis and Palestinians felt about each other. It’s swooping and moves from specific and her world to encompassing much bigger issues in the global world.

And because this is a coming-of-age story, there has to be the fraught issue of sex. Her friend Lakshmi announced that she would be a virgin when she married and although Selin asked questions, what she really wanted to know was what were the rules and how had she come up with the expectations. It turns out that Lakshmi’s marriage would be arranged. Try reading Satre to help with this puzzle!

Oh the confusion, the not knowing what to do – ‘just relax’, fake it because he wasn’t going to stop until something changed, stopping your head hitting the window and who to have sex with and who not. What I can’t quite get over is that this book is said to be autobiographical and I think it must have been torture for Batuman as she grew up.

And yet, at the end it feels like the gap is closing, ‘knitting together before my eyes’ leading to a life that is as good as her favourite books. So, this is also a book about finding your feet as a writer – how to write and what to write so that it is authentic.

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