Books left ajar

Halfway through Vox (1992), Nicholson Baker’s great novel about phone sex, the male caller asks the female caller to tell him what she was thinking about the last time she had an orgasm. “Do you mean the image that made me come, or do you mean the image that I had in my head when I came? she asks. He’s not sure. “There’s a big difference”, she tells him:

I mean, the actual images that I have when I’m coming are things like, I don’t know, elephant seals dozing on rocks, a carousel selection of greetings cards, a painting tightly wrapped in canvas, porch furniture – my brain is going so wild that there’s no way to predict what sort of oddment will be there when all the flashbulbs go off.

What the man had wanted to know about was the first image, the filthy one, before the seals and porch furniture. But the reader is grateful to have this surprising, counterintuitive truth put so exactly into words. This is the central pleasure of reading Elif Batuman’s ferociously intelligent fiction: the thrill of encountering things you already half-knew, rendered in language with lyrical precision. Again and again you will feel like Batuman’s narrator, Selin, does on first hearing the phrase “good on a sentence level”. “To think there was a name for that feeling of mixed gratitude and disappointment that I had dismissed as too private to name.”

The question of sentences and shaping has dogged discussion of Batuman’s work since her takedown of The Best American Short Stories (2004 and 2005) in n+1 (issue 4, spring 2006). “Many of these stories seemed to have been pared down to a nearly unreadable core of brisk verbs and vivid nouns”, Batuman wrote, arguing against artificial specificity, “craft” and concision, and urging Americans to write “long novels, pointless novels” . Reviewers mostly concluded that Batuman’s debut novel, The Idiot (2017), fulfilled this manifesto. “Small pleasures will have to sustain you over the long haul of this novel”, wrote (the basically admiring) Dwight Garner in the New York Times. “The Idiot builds little narrative or emotional force.”

Selin, like her creator, is an American born to Turkish parents. The Idiot narrates her first year as an earnest undergraduate at Harvard, studying linguistics and Russian. In the summer vacation she goes to Hungary to teach English. Batuman’s new book, Either/Orpicks up where The Idiot left off, covering Selin’s second year at Harvard. During the summer she travels round Turkey as a researcher for the Harvard-run travel guide series Let’s Go.

You can read about the real-life basis for Selin’s peregrinations in Batuman’s entertaining book of memoir-essays, The Possessed (2010), the first third of which covers events later expanded into the two novels. Batuman’s adherence to her own biography accounts for her fiction’s convincing randomness, but also, in The Idiot, for the lack of narrative that Garner correctly fingers. The smaller pleasures, thankfully, are plentiful. Selin’s mind – playful, curious, iconoclastic – is a wonderful place to spend time as she encounters Bleak House or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity. Best of all, in this earlier book, Batuman never forgets how little you know when you’re eighteen, even when you’re very clever. During Russian conversation class, Selin’s older crush, a Hungarian mathematics student called Ivan, reveals that he wants to live in Berkeley after Harvard. Selin tells us: “I tried to remember what Berkeley was. ‘In … California?’ … I had never been to or thought about California.”

Ivan is the main non-event in The Idiot. He and Selin exchange a long series of intense emails. They meet up for awkward walks. There is a sexually charged episode in a lake, but nothing happens. Selin volunteers for the Hungarian teaching job in the hope of seeing him over the summer – he’ll be in Budapest – but she learns before departure that he’s actually had a girlfriend all along. They meet up anyway. Nothing happens. Imagine Sally Rooney’s Normal People without the sex and you’ll have a good sense of the circumambulations. It might be an authentic representation of an unconsummated obsession, but 423 pages of it is … well, an awful lot of authenticity.

Reading The IdiotI thought of Tristram Shandy, not reaching his own birth until Volume Three, but mostly of Adam MarsJones’s surprisingly comparable-project, the novels Pilcro (2008; 525pp) and Cedilla (2011; 752pp). Mars-Jones’s narrator is a victim of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, telling his life story in molecular detail from the discomfort of his wheelchair. Like Batuman, Mars-Jones refuses to solve “the exquisite problem of the artist”, in Henry James’s phrase: given that “really, universally, relations stop nowhere”, James wrote, the job of the novelist is “to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.”

No circles for Mars-Jones or Batuman; These books are deliberately, defiantly linear and open-ended. And for both writers the second novel is the more successful, for the simple reason that more things happen to their respective narrators. Batuman’s title in this second novel, borrowed from Søren Kierkegaard, continues a preoccupation from the first book: Selin wants to know what it means to live an aesthetic life, as opposed to an ethical one. She is encouraged in this endeavor by André Breton, quoting from his introduction to Nadja (1928): “I insist on knowing the names, on being interested only in books left ajar, like doors; I will not go looking for keys.” This gives Selin, who wants to write but dislikes making things up, an idea.

What if I could use the aesthetic life as an algorithm to solve my two biggest problems: how to live, and how to write novels? In any real-life situation, I would pretend I was in a novel, and then do whatever I would want the person in the novel to do. Afterward, I would write it all down, and I would have written a novel, without having had to invent a bunch of fake characters and pretend to care about them.

Obviously there is a jumbo measure of irony here – not least because we are reading a novel narrated by Selin, not Elif. But Selin seems to follow her own advice, lifting herself out of the unlived life by sending an unconventional, courageous email. Having spent the first two semesters of Either/Or depressed and mourning Ivan (who is now indeed at Berkeley), on page 216 she is kissed for the first time, by a man she has just met at a party. The kiss is recounted with the typical descriptive flair: “For something that had seemed so impossible for so long to happen so effortlessly, like a row of cards falling over, and falling, and falling…”. A few days later Selin sends her plot-turning email to this man, asking him (we infer) to help rid her of her virginity. “Was it sex”, Selin wonders, “‘having’ sex – that would restore me to the sense of my life as a story?”

The final 100 pages of Either/Or are full of sex, if not quite a story. First it happens, painfully and bloodily, with the man from the party, then with two men in Turkey. This is the point at which this very good novel really takes off and becomes the kind of book you want everyone you know to read. Batuman, it turns out, is a writer of sex to rival Nicholson Baker. Surely these must be some of the best descriptions of female sexual experience in literature: funny, oblique, serious, patient, never obvious, always true. Here, as throughout her writing, Batuman demonstrates that her great strength is her ability to paddle back upriver to a time before familiarity, to when California, and email (it’s the 1990s), and penetrative sex were unknown entities. In Turkey she finds herself “starting to get the feeling that the in-and-out motion was sex – that there wasn’t anything else after that.” She perseveres:

The moments, isolated at first, when I started to feel like I understood it – like I understood why it was desirable, how to appreciate it, and how to draw it out – reminded me of the first time I managed to follow a Shakespeare play .

Early on in Either/Or, Selin tells us that “all I was ever trying to do when I wrote … was to show how much I saw and understood.” She fixes on a cover quotation about Kazuo Ishiguro: “Good writers abound – good novelists are very rare. Kazuo Ishiguro is … not only a good writer, but also a wonderful novelist.” I’m not sure that good writers – really good ones – do abound. And I object to anyone who uses the phrase “good on a sentence level” with outright disdain. Baker, Batuman, Mars-Jones: these are three writers of rare talent, writers who excel at sentence level and, crucially, at the level of the riff, the deep dive into the pleasures of, say, thumb-twiddling, or écriture féminine. They are members of the tiny tribe who can safely “write long novels, pointless novels”.

Either/Or finishes midway through Selin’s summer vacation. We leave her after a long meditation on James’s The Portrait of a Lady, on her way to spend time in Moscow. Her luggage has been lost. Presumably, hopefully, there will be a third instalment of the adventures of Elif Batuman’s brilliantly modern picaro – at the start of which Selin will recover her lost luggage, and once again we’ll pick up from exactly where we left off. I’ll be waiting at the taxi rank, ready to hop in and travel with her, wherever she wants to go.

Claire Lowdon‘s novel Left of the Bang was published in 2015

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