This novel conquers you in a million micro-observations. Harvard’s departments seem arbitrary to Selin, who wonders why there is no love department. She writes: “I wish there was a class where they could teach you how to calculate the right time to die. The current arrangement, for everyone to sit there waiting piously every time their body shuts down, seemed far from ideal.” Selin, drunk on words, wonders why poetry books are so expensive when they have so few words.
He occasionally gets out of his own educated and expensive head. In a Pilates class, fights over mat placement are “deeply stressful, in a way that made me feel like I understood the primal conflicts over land that formed the basis of modern history.” She wonders if this is what Palestinians and Israelis feel.
She attends a glittery sadomasochism-themed party for a literary magazine. What she reveals to him, in a typically astute observation, is “the true face of all parties: how they all, in one way or another, had the S&M theme.”
The brain is not the only organ in this novel. One by one, Selin’s friends and roommates are chosen, romantically and sexually, and she hates it. When people connect, she thinks, it often means there are suddenly new, more tedious people.
About sex, he asks, “Why can’t we be excited about something else?” She wonders why her happiness should have to “depend on my ability to find some idiot to tell me I’m special. I already knew it was special. So what did he need the fool for?
When Selin starts having sex, she is so perceptive that the scenes are a blast.
“I like this fabric,” he said, touching it for a moment before pulling my blouse over my head: something I hadn’t experienced since I was 6 years old. how strange that youhis it was like that – that the most adult was in a way like being a child. When he tossed the garment to the floor, I resisted the urge to pick it up and fold it.
Sex leads to new problems. The men she admires in fiction, the ones who lead the aesthetic life she values, often “ruin” young women and abandon them. What does this lesson mean for a woman? Should she harden her heart? Is Selin a tiger cub who brings home her first prey?
The last section of “Either/Or” takes Selin to Turkey, where she travels while reporting for the Let’s Go series of travel books. Batuman wrote of similar voyages in his memoirs; she’s an astute observer of budget travel tropes.