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by elif batuman
penguin, 368 pages, $27

Flannery O’Connor argued that the separation of matter and spirit, nature and grace, was fatal to the art of fiction, which requires an interest in characters, stories, and concrete details rather than problems, issues, and abstract statements. Novel-­writing, she insisted, is “so very much an ­incarnational art.” O’Connor knew well, possibly from personal experience, that many beginning writers must fight against their Manichean tendency to view enfleshed stories as inferior vehicles for some theory or ideology. I wonder, though, whether she could have suspected the degree to which novel-writing in America would one day be taken over by the Manicheans.

Elif Batuman’s new novel provides fresh evidence of that takeover. It is a skillful, even at times mesmerizing, piece of agitprop, which takes the skeletal outlines of a radical feminist idea and wraps them in the shimmering cloak of fiction. Batuman, a staff writer at the New Yorker, is the author of a highly readable and often hilarious essay collection, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (2010), comprising magazine pieces about her life as a globe-trotting grad student. She is also the author of a comic bildungsroman, The Idiot (2017), about Selin, a Turkish-American freshman at Harvard who falls for an older math major and follows him to Hungary over summer vacation.

Batuman says she wrote the bulk of that first novel in the early 2000s, at a time when she felt bored by politics. Awakened by #MeToo and the Trump presidency, she now regards her merely literary fascinations as a distraction from the task of developing (as she told the New Yorker) “a queer and political consciousness,” and her investment in men as a waste of time. She wrote Either/Or under the ­influence of ­Adrienne Rich’s 1980 essay “Compulsory ­Heterosexuality and ­Lesbian ­Existence,” which, she says in a note at the back of the novel, helped her “to reconstruct some of the heternormative forces that ­operated on me in the 1990s. . . . One goal of [the] book was to dramatize those ­forces.” (Hetero­normative forces are, in Rich’s words, “­societal ­forces that wrench women’s emotional and erotic energies away from themselves and other women and from women-­identified ­values.”)

Batuman’s novel, which continues Selin’s story into her sophomore year at Harvard and summer vacation travels, takes its title from Kierkegaard. ­Selin reads “The Seducer’s Diary” in the Danish philosopher’s Either/Or and is inspired to live a risky, stylish “aesthetic life.” She runs a gauntlet of fleeting encounters, first with a Polish student whom she calls “The Count” and then with locals in the Turkish provinces she tours in the employ of Harvard’s Let’s Go ­travel guide. ­Batuman wants us to see her protagonist’s pursuit of sex and men as the unhappy result of adhering to a male-centric playbook. The novel is accordingly full of scenes that ­depict the “eroticization of women’s subordination.” (That phrase, cited by Rich in her essay, is originally from the radical feminist scholar Catharine ­MacKinnon.) It is also full of discussions of literature, film, and pop music that effect (this is Rich again) the “­erasure of lesbian existence (except as exotic and perverse)” and the “­idealization of heterosexual romance and marriage.”

Here is one passage from Either/Or that combines just about all of the above. Selin (who is learning Russian because she wants to study Russian literature) goes with a friend to the language lab to watch a movie called Moscow Does Not ­Believe in Tears. Selin is still trying to get over Ivan, the math major from her freshman year, who is now a grad student on the West Coast and, as it turns out, was living with his girlfriend the whole time Selin knew him. In the film, a mechanic falls in love with a ­woman in the metro, believing her to be a factory worker. Only when they have begun a relationship does he discover that she is actually an engineer—a revelation that stirs him to anger. She looks at him and says simply: “Forgive me.” Selin is moved:

There was something so exciting about how submissively she said it—how different it was from if she had protested and reasoned. And it worked: he forgave her, in a way that was somehow intensely sexual, even though she was an attractive woman, and he looked like a pedantic thuggish elf. I was filled with the desire to say that to Ivan, and for him to forgive me.

To grasp what this snippet is aiming at, it is worth recalling that Batuman studied briefly with René Girard while she was a grad student at Stanford, and wrote about the experience and his theory of mimetic desire in The Possessed. ­Girard’s theory states that we learn to desire things from others, including from fictional characters (Madame Bovary wants to have a love affair because she reads novels about Parisian ladies who have love affairs). Here Selin watches a woman behave submissively and then desires to behave submissively herself. Batuman presents this episode as one tile in a mosaic of interactions in which Selin ­unconsciously imitates books, teen magazines, and pop songs (one of the book’s highlights is a remarkable description of listening to Lauryn Hill’s cover of “Killing Me Softly”) that reinforce the hetero­normative “script,” supposedly ­creating a ­Matrix-like lie in which she is trapped unawares.

Often Batuman gets her ideological point across simply, as when Selin has the feeling “of the world being a huge soul-crushing sex conspiracy that I didn’t know how to be a part of.” This may be a feminist talking point, but it’s ­also a thought that a bookish, multi-­lingual, six-foot-tall teenager with divorced parents might actually have, indeed one that would sound authentic running through the mind of any forlorn youngster surrounded by friends and roommates who are starting to hook up or pair off. Sometimes, though, ­Either/Or disguises its ideas in the form of a question. On a visit to the ­mausoleum of the Persian mystic and poet Rumi, Selin contemplates the couplet

You are not a bride or the groom.
You do not fit in a house with a family.

Then we get Batuman, filtered through Selin’s first-person reflection: “Was it possible to be like that—to not be the bride or the groom, to not fit in a house with a family? What happened to you, then?” This use of the interrogative mood only makes the didacticism more obtrusive. (To be fair, some of the questions Selin asks herself about Rumi work well. “In dreams, and even awake,/you will hear the beloved screaming at you.” After reading that couplet, Selin wonders: “Was it possible that Rumi was funny?”)

Either/Or helps us see the relationship between the aesthetics of a novel—its style and form, the way it feels when you read it—and the anthropology, the vision of man, that animates its storytelling. Change the underlying anthropology and you get a different story, told in a different way. What is sometimes called “the traditional novel”—that genre in which a character matures enough to get married and have children, or at least makes some painful but salutary discoveries about how to live—was underpinned by a view of material things and ordinary events as worthy of literary depiction in and of themselves. “For, Sancho, you must know . . . that a diamond is not so precious as a tooth,” Don Quixote admonishes. Such attentiveness, evincing what might be called an incarnational sensibility, would later define ­literary realism, with its emphasis on dramatic “showing” and ­concrete detail.

The traditional novel also rests on a conception of sexual ethics that sees the body as integral to the human person, rather than as an inferior adjunct, and sex and procreation as tightly bound together. It would be a mistake, for example, to think that Jane Austen’s novels, which reveal sexy militia officers to be dubious marriage material, thereby devalue the body or ­sexual attraction. Austen’s leading men and women are often described, with decorous understatement, as having “a good figure,” and they enjoy a palpable physical chemistry with their future spouses. (No wonder there are so many big families in her novels.)

Batuman, clearly, does not want to follow the pattern of the traditional novel. Such novels, Selin observes, “were usually long, containing descriptions of furniture and of somebody falling in love, and often had nineteenth century paintings on the cover.” Elsewhere she likens the “coming-of-age ­novel” to “the life-cycle of a frog, where there was a grand progression ending with ‘maturity’ and the ability to procreate.”

All of this is what Either/Or aims to leave behind, beginning with the descriptions of furniture. In the second semester, Selin goes to an introductory meeting for a creative writing class taught by a famous novelist. There she learns that to apply she will have to write a description of her bed:

The thought of writing anything about my bed . . . was deeply dispiriting. Nor was this feeling, on examination, specific to that bed. I didn’t want to describe any furniture. . . . I wanted to write a book about interpersonal relations and the human condition.

Selin sees describing furniture and writing books about the human condition as separate undertakings. O’Connor would surely have pushed back on this point. The novelistic way to the human condition, she might have said, necessarily passes through the description of furniture. (In Mystery and Manners she wrote: “It is a good deal easier for most people to state an abstract idea than to describe and thus re-create some object that they actually see.”)

As it happens, Batuman herself excels at describing furniture, and just about everything else, as in this pan over the interior of ­Selin’s grandmother’s apartment in ­Ankara:

The hulking carved wardrobes and cupboards and sideboards; crystal ashtrays, embroidered cloths, stacked bezique counters, decks of cards that my aunts knew how to shuffle and manipulate with terrifying expertness and an absent expression.

But although Either/Or is strewn with many such descriptions, it never weaves them into a tightly knit fabric. The novel has a sketchy, loose feel. Talky narration predominates (“Riley had given up on the SPCA and joined a Usenet group”). By comparison with The Idiot, which only gently subverts the conventions of the bildungsroman, the dramatic scenes in Either/Or lack texture and energy, as if Batuman were thumbing her nose at the diktats of Selin’s creative writing professors. When she feels like it—for instance, when Selin accompanies “The Count” back to his room for a sexual encounter—­Batuman can write such scenes brilliantly well. But in Either/Or, it seems, she rarely feels like it.

Her interest, instead, is in the heteronormative Matrix, which, though Selin remains hopelessly caught in it, is clear enough to the reader. The novel suggests that, ­unconstrained by biology, women can redefine and redirect their own (as Rich has it) “emotional and erotic energies” at will. For instance, ­Selin describes her sexual desire for Ivan as a “dull, electric jolt, some heavy, slow machinery starting to turn in my chest and between my legs. I had never felt those things in relation with a girl.” But she also expresses approval when her creative writing teacher, discussing unrequited love, speaks of “a wrongness underlying the machinery,” as if a manufacturing ­defect—a flaw in creation itself—were to blame for her painful ­experiences with men. “Love had death in it, and madness,” she tells herself. “To try to escape those things was childish and anti-­novelistic.” But Batuman means us to understand that her heroine is missing crucial ­information: ­Lesbian existence, she hints in various ways, offers a means of breaking out of the body’s hardwired “machinery” and also out of conventional, conflict-­driven ­storytelling.

It is no coincidence that the traditional understandings of marriage and fiction have broken down at roughly the same time. Just as O’Connor observes that “the sensibility infected” with the Manichean spirit will find it “hard if not impossible” to write fiction, so too does Robert P. George note that the “conjugal conception of marriage as a union of the sort that is naturally fulfilled by the ­spouses having and bringing up children together strikes the ear of the neo-Gnostic as unintelligible and even bizarre.”

If fiction is just a way of dressing up ideas, it does not truly have a raison d’être. It is worth reading because it speaks in its own narrative language, and so has something to say that cannot be translated into another idiom, an intellectual meaning that is inextricably concrete (this is true even and especially when the author is writing “a fantasy,” as O’Connor puts it). Some of the best contemporary novelists have made the same point. “As a storyteller I am infinitely more fascinated by what I see than by ideas, however profound,” says the German novelist Martin Mosebach. “I would never dream of writing a novel about human rights or human dignity or their philosophical and religious foundations. I would always try to depict people . . .” 

For writers who have learned to value the ghostly and the abstract above the tangible, this taste for visible things has to be acquired. “In hindsight,” says Jonathan Franzen, “there was a deformingly large amount of stuff in my second novel, Strong Motion, that was more essayistic, more opinion-based, than purely about the characters.” Though his most recent novel, ­Crossroads, does not shy from big questions, it avoids using fiction as an instrument for social ­commentary: “The difference there is that I don’t have a dog in that fight. I’m just trying to represent what a character might be trying to figure out.” Franzen’s late aesthetic corresponds to what he has elsewhere described as a growing attraction, born of his passion for bird-watching, to “St. Francis of Assisi’s example of loving what’s concrete and vulnerable and right in front of us.”

The Idiot, Batuman’s previous novel, maintains contact with that incarnational sensibility. Although it goes to some lengths to avoid anything resembling a character arc, its evocation of adolescent yearning, even if somewhat static, is refreshingly unencumbered by the sort of consciousness-raising lessons that have become de rigueur in today’s literary world. But now that she has been converted to the woke agenda, Batuman has stopped writing what she once approvingly called “pointless novels.”

Many readers will be willing to overlook Batuman’s ideology for the sake of her new novel’s deadpan humor and infrequent but effective moments of emotional intensity. Either/Or is often vivid and true to life—but it is seldom immersive or dramatic. When a novelist, especially one with so many gifts, uses fiction as a tool of indoctrination, even the parts that work are diminished.

Trevor Cribben Merrill is the author of Minor Indignities.

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