Life Is Not a Novel

Love wasn’t a slumber party with your best friend. Love was dangerous, violent, with an element of something repulsive; attraction had a permeable border with repulsion… To try and escape those things was immature and anti-novelistic. 

— Either/Or, Elif Batuman 

Part One Fall 
I’ve always had a very active daydream life. This preoccupation with the mind, of living through it, has served me well in creative endeavors but has never been something aligned with physicality, or romance, or sensuality. I suppose this doesn’t matter much, especially right now, as I am figuratively stranded in the rural Oklahoma countryside. Nobody but me and the ghosts and the books day in, day out. But it might have mattered once, or at least I thought it did.

My friend Dana recently texted: “Autumn I’m sorry to inform you but I think you might read too much.” I laugh-reacted and LOL’d, but it got me thinking. And when I think, it rarely passes me by in an instant; it is consuming, stretching over hours and days.

So, I did what I always do, despite the warning — I started to read.

I first encountered Elif Batuman’s The Idiot in my first year of graduate school, where I languished through my first bout with Alabama humidity in an apartment without real A/C. I tended to nap for a few hours after classes ended for the day on a hand-me-down loveseat and then read until I felt ready to sleep again, the antique coffee table in front of me littered with open Canada Dry cans and stacks of yellow legal pads, workshop notes, and other detritus.

I chose The Idiot because I had seen in some literary magazine or another that it was a finalist for a Pulitzer, and because it was a tome, and because it was considered, by some, snobbish and pretentious and overly referential.

As someone who has been accused of just those things, I was taken in an instant. Fresh and open, like first love, or something like it.

What I felt and still feel for Selin Karadağ, the narrator of The Idiot and its sequel Either/Or, was something deeper than kinship. We were the same, in so many ways. Bookish, close to our mothers, doomed to be writers, virginal (at least for longer than our peers), wry and somewhat distant until comfortable, convinced that reading the right book, or books, would teach us the secrets of life, would teach us how to live.

Of course, Selin and I have a great many differences. I did not go to Harvard, I am not Turkish, my parents are not doctors (but were instead high school teachers), and I have never stepped foot on the East Coast (unless you count North Carolina) and did not grow up there. I did not come from money, whatever that even means.

Still, never before had I felt canonized before reading Batuman’s novels, not even in the stacks of Native American literature I have taken to, desperate for a sign I was doing something right, or, rather, that this life I was living would one day make sense, would feel worth it in the end.

To call a book queer is to assert something, is to take a stance that cannot easily be recalled. It is to set modes of internal criteria, to make sense of something created, perhaps, for a purpose not like this. It is to call something your own, to cling to it. To cling to it.

In The Idiot, Selin takes up with Ivan, a senior headed toward the other side of the country in a mere matter of months. They send semi-flirtatious emails back and forth. They talk, and talk, and talk. Selin can never find solid ground with Ivan; she can never know what he’s thinking. We, the audience, know that Ivan is simply a man infatuated with a younger, more innocent woman. He wants less talk, so to speak, and more action.

We will never know, though, what he might have done if he had gotten what he wanted. The novel ends, without even a kiss between them.

I didn’t know what to do with the relief that had built up in my gut upon finishing. Not in the slightest.

I finished Either/Or in a reckless two days filled with inadvisable caffeine and a light sheen of sweat. I felt sick and settled, invigorated and heavy-headed. It took me too long to fall asleep afterward. All I could see was my own romantic history, sparse yet rife with something not right in any iteration, playing before me over and over again, like the world’s worst documentary film.

I’ve always been a good talker. Or, well, I’ve always had the potential to be a good talker. I don’t think I said any words aloud until I was nearly a woman grown, then I couldn’t stop. I committed them to paper and text messages and a brief interlude of Snapchat. I send emails and write postcards to friends. I call and FaceTime and send voice memos. I wonder, now, what kind of narrative I’m trying to create. If this inborn charm is, in itself, a form of manipulation.

I suppose there are worse things.

Part Two Spring 
In Either/Or, Selin returns to Harvard a little more bruised, a little more lived. I found out later that Batuman had been thinking a lot about Adrienne Rich’s essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality” while writing her second novel, though it didn’t surprise me. Selin has her first kiss (with a man, of course), she has sex, she socially lubricates, often, with alcohol, and feels more relaxed for it. I turn my face away from the page as if that will protect me.

The essayist must balance the personal with the existential, the thought-provoking, that which the reader actually wants to read. Joan had her cigarettes and her migraines. I have my migraines. What else?

Selin cannot even attempt to put a tampon in without excruciating pain. Selin likens Ivan to the Seducer in Kierkegaard’s Diary of a Seducer. Selin starts taking Zoloft. Selin reads and reads and reads. Selin wants exciting experiences only so that she can one day write about them. Selin wants Ivan physically only when he is not around. Selin wishes she could pet her best friend Svetlana’s golden hair, compliment her, and watch her become more beautiful because of it. Svetlana gets a boyfriend, and nothing will ever be the same.

This is easier, isn’t it? Isn’t it?

I go on Tinder. I go on Feeld. Bumble, 3Fun, Hinge. I talk and talk and talk. I match with husbands and uninterested wives. I match with semi-interested wives and overly excited husbands. I match with several very nice couples that make me feel guilty about every decision that led me to this moment. I flirt a little bit and flirt some more. It doesn’t even feel like me, so I don’t feel sick afterward, nor do I regret the attention, which feels like something even if it’s nothing. It’s nice. It is nice it is nice it is nice. I like it I like it I like it. I like it. I like it. I like it. This is good. It will be good. I will make it good. Yes, it is good.

Another way she and I differ: She thinks it is ridiculous how much everyone cares what their parents think. Everyone is always talking about it. Obsessing over it. I think it’s ridiculous, too. And one of them is dead. Still, aren’t you on firmer, safer ground, Selin?

For Selin, the rest of one of her semesters passes in a haze of snotty tissues and beautifully falling leaves. Her eyes have bags underneath them and her hair is unwashed, knotted. I have never been this lonely. I used to not care about how lonely I was. Why now? Why?

I decide to reread Anna Karenina for the thousandth time. Even if it isn’t a great idea, it will certainly be a comfort.

Summer
There ought to be a lesson here, a final statement. I will tell you that these books changed my perspective, which they did. I will tell you that I am learning how to live, which I am. I will tell you that loneliness can get better, but often it involves active choice. Your wants, your desires, and your wishes cannot just exist in the space of your daydreams, cannot only be reflected back to you in books. Or they can, but that will become hollow, eventually. It will hurt to see it.

Summer has never been my season. I was born to the darkened hours, the falling leaves, the secrets. What happens when the sun finally touches my face?

Perhaps the truth is that it is time to step outside of the words, of the documents and notebooks and stacked novels. Perhaps it is time to open the door, to feel that light. I am not that brave yet, but maybe one day I will be. I am moving through something, whether we call it life or experience, evolution, or something else more nebulous and harder to name.

For so long I have denied myself the experiences I want, that I crave, that I only feel comfortable experiencing through the lens of someone else’s experience that it has begun to feel impossible to live the kind of life I want, if only in secret, for myself.

I am not a creature built for love. But here, now, I want to be. I want to allow myself to be. Why does it feel anathema to my being to say I want connection? I don’t know. I don’t. But I do. I hope for it. I long for it. I want to hold it in my hands, not in pages bound together, but in a tangible, physical sense. I wonder if it is possible, especially in this place that is so haunted, is so confused about who, and what, I am.

But stranger things have happened, and life is not a novelistic plot device. I am not written in stone, nor are my actions. There is growth to be had. I can feel it. I can.

Even so, I’ll take Selin along. I think she has more to teach me. Maybe I’ll know it when I see it, this time.


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Autumn Fourkiller

Autumn Fourkiller is from rural Oklahoma. She is currently at work on a novel about ghosts, grief, and Indigeneity. A 2022 Ann Friedman Weekly Fellow, her work can be found in Scalawag, Atlas Obscura, and Man Repeller. You can follow her newsletter, Dream Interpretation for Dummies, on Substack.

Autumn has written 2 articles for us.

7 Comments

  1. I read either/or this week and also felt so shaky and affected. I was really looking for an essay that captured how it felt and you did it perfectly!!! Thanks you for not having an easy resolution. I love Selin and this really touched me. Selina’s college experiences reminded me so sickeningly of my own attempts at heterosexuality in college — the way boys were the only value even when obviously they had no value.

  2. Love Batuman’s books and love this essay. “Joan had her cigarettes and migraines. I have my migraines.” Also am rereading Anna Karenina at the moment because it’s a comfort.

    I adore how Batuman and the essay dramatize the cycle of trying to live through literature and then trying to live but doing it by reenacting literary tropes and the constant struggle of that over and over. Anyway. This is good.

  3. Either/Or is one of my favorite books I have ever read, and also i just read it last month (as well as The Idiot) so I love this essay so much!

    my friend & i were talking about how it felt like either/or was an account of a girl going through the motions with men before she figures out that she’s queer, but i wasn’t sure if that was there or if that was something i was reading into it knowing that batuman identifies as queer now, so it makes such absolute sense that she was thinking about ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ when she wrote it

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