Though I’ve read Elif Batuman’s novel Either/Or, which recently made The New York Times’ “Notable Books” list for 2022, I can’t tell you whether it’s any good. It’s a novel set at a place and time so drenched in my own memories and regrets—the college I went to, one year before I got there—that I had to give up any hope of evaluating it.
I lapped the novel up, relishing and cringing at references that could compose a clickbait-y “You went to Harvard in the late 1990s if . . . ” list: the prospect of summer travel updating a Let’s Go guide; heady discussions after Jay Harris’s core Moral Reasoning class “If There Is No God, All Is Permitted”; the green-on-black Unix terminals, with Pine email and the creepy “finger” command that allowed you to see where your friends had last logged in. I identified with Batuman’s protagonist, Selin, in more personal ways, too: In her second year of college, she discovers sex like an anthropologist from Mars—or maybe like a person fated to encounter Adrienne Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” 20 years later—and without getting into the details, that also brings back uncomfortable memories for me.
But if I can’t guess whether or not the novel will resonate the way it did for me with Jewish Currents readers who are younger or older than me and/or haven’t done time in Cambridge, I do feel sure that if you read this magazine, you’ll enjoy one minor aspect of the book that I haven’t seen mentioned in any of its admiring reviews (and this wasn’t there in The Idiot, Batuman’s previous novel, which narrates Selin’s first year of college).
I’m referring to Batuman’s pointed caricature of her childhood friend, the novelist and essayist Dara Horn, in a character here called Leora. Explaining how they know each other, Selin says, “Leora had been my best friend when we were little, and then we went to different middle schools and high schools, but now we were at college together.” This checks out with public knowledge about Batuman and Horn, but even if it didn’t, some of what Selin has to say about Leora is a dead giveaway. One of Selin’s classmates writes a story about a girl whose mother hands her a box filled with “the priceless artifacts of her people,” and tells her that if she “ever forgot those things, then she would have helped to murder her ancestors.” That makes Selin think of her old friend: “I knew that Leora believed something like that, and thought she had to learn her ancestors’ languages, translate their books, and memorialize how they had been murdered.” (Horn famously studied Hebrew and Yiddish in college, and before she began writing novels, she completed a prize-winning undergrad thesis on “the messianic experiment in modern Jewish literature.”) When Selin gives Proust a try, she reflects that “Leora said [Swann’s Way] was so boring that she could hear her own hair grow,” and that sounds to me like Horn, too. The really telling bit, though, in a novel published less than a year after Horn’s success with People Love Dead Jews, is Selin’s understanding that Leora, by the time she arrived at college, “already thought every single person on earth was anti-Semitic.”