Either/Or by Elif Batuman

This sequel needs a sequel.

“Was this the decisive moment of my life? It felt as if the gap that had dogged me all my days was knitting together before my eyes—so that, from this point on, my life would be as coherent and meaningful as my favorite books. At the same time, I had a powerful sense of having escaped something: of having finally stepped outside the script.”

In Either/Or we are reunited with Selin as she continues to navigate the trials and tribulations of adulthood. Now a sophomore student at Harvard, Selin has plenty to keep her occupied: her studies inspire her to question the choices she and others have made, the direction of her life, the meaning of love, sex, and connection, the limitations of language, and, of course, her relationship with Ivan, the Hungarian student whose mind remains to Selin, and by extension us, as unreadable as ever. Did she care for her at all?

There was something abstract and gentle about the experience of being ignored—a feeling of being spared, a known impossibility of anything happening—that was consonant with my understanding of love.

Selin’s propensity for long asides is as present as ever and I loved losing myself in her inner monologue. Her long acts of introspections do often come across as navel-gazing (curiously enough the narrative itself mentions navel-gazing), but I never felt bored or annoyed by it. If anything, Selin’s solipsistic inclination for self-interrogation made her all the more realistic. That she refers to books, music, films, and authors to make sense of herself and others results in a deeply intratextual narrative that will definitely appeal to literary students. While Selin isn’t wholly enamoured by academia, we can see how her studies and the books she reads inform the way she understands her world and those who populate it. She often draws parallels between her own life and those of historical and fictional figures. Some of the authors/artists/etc. she mentions include: Kazuo Ishiguro, Fiona Apple, Charles Baudelaire, Pushkin, Shakespeare, André Breton, and of course, Soren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or.

“There was something about crying so much, the way it made my body so limp and hot and shuddering, that made me feel closer to sex. Maybe there was a line where sex and total sadness touched—one of those surprising borders that turned out to exist, like the one between Italy and Slovenia. Music, too, was adjacent. It was like Trieste, which was Italian and Slovenian and also somehow Austrian.”

Of course, at times these books and figures only add further confusion, so Selin is unsure whether she’s idealizing herself and others so that her life can resemble those she encounters in fiction. More often than not knowledge fails her, so she’s unable to decipher not only the motivations of others but her own true feelings.
Her writerly aspirations too preoccupy her and so do the changes that come about in her life. Selin’s intense friendship and rivalry with ​​Svetlana is threatened when the latter finds a boyfriend. Her roommates too have plenty of things that keep them occupied so Selin finds herself going to parties where she meets less than ideal men. Yet even as Selin forms sexual relationships with them, she longs for Ivan and obsesses over what his infrequent emails leave unsaid.

“It seemed to me that the elements whirling around me in my own life were also somehow held in place by Ivan’s absence, or were there because of him—to counterbalance a void.”

Either/Or shares the same structure with The Idiot so we follow Selin month by month during her academic year before tagging alongside her as she once again goes abroad for the summer. In Turkey she finds herself forming unexpected connections but remains somewhat remote to them.

Sardonic and adroit Either/Or makes for a fantastic read. While Selin does change over the course of her sophomore year, she also remains very much herself. She can be reserved and slightly baffling at times, and yet she’s also capable of making some very insightful or relatable comments. She’s intelligent, somewhat naive, and has a penchant for overthinking and obsessing over minor things. Her deadpan sense of humor and little idiosyncrasies make her character really pop out of the page. I could definitely relate to her many many uncertainties, as well as her fixation with understanding the person who never seemed to reciprocate her feelings.

The one that started “Days like this, I don’t know what to do with myself” made me feel certain that I had spent my whole life not knowing what to do with myself—all day, and all night. “I wander the halls . . .” That was exactly it: not the streets, like a flâneur, but the halls. Oh, I knew just which halls.

As I mentioned already over the course of her second year at Harvard Selin grows into a more self-assured person while also remaining strangely static. Her mental meanderings often included reflections on things such as desirability, belonging, love, heartbreak, self-fulfilment, choice & chance, and I found her perspective on these things deeply compelling. At times her mind is preoccupied with mundane thoughts, at times she loses herself in philosophical and existentialist questions about human nature.
Batuman’s inclusion of the minutiae of her protagonist’s life (such as inserting a tampon: “I tried again to put in a tampon. ABSOLUTELY NO FUCKING WAY.”) made Selin’s reality at Harvard all the more vivid. I could easily envision the different environments she occupies, as well as the people who inhabit those places. This combined with the mumblecore dialogues and Selin’s recursive inner monologue, which borders on being a stream of consciousness, give Either/Or quality of hyperrealism. That is, even when confronted with moments of surreality or scenes of a comedic nature, I believed completely in what I was reading. A sense of 90s nostalgia permeates her story which adds to the narrative’s overall atmosphere and aesthetic.

“It was the golden time of year. Every day the leaves grew brighter, the air sharper, the grass more brilliant. The sunsets seemed to expand and melt and stretch for hours, and the brick façades glowed pink, and everything blue got bluer. How many perfect autumns did a person get? Why did I seem always to be in the wrong place, listening to the wrong music?”

I loved this novel so thoroughly that I was sad to reach its inevitable conclusion. I hope with all my heart that Batuman will write a third instalment where we will follow Selin during her third year at Harvard.
If you enjoyed The Idiot chances us you will, like me, love this even more (perhaps because batuman is expanding on the ‘universe’ she already established). If you are a fan of the young-alienated-women subgenre you should definitely consider picking these series up.

My eternal gratitude to the publisher for providing me with an arc.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The Four Humors by Mina Seckin

“THE FOUR HUMORS THAT PUMP THROUGH MY BODY DETERMINE my character, temperament, mood. Blood, phlegm, black bile, and choler. The excess or lack of these bodily fluids designates how a person should be.”

The Four Humors is a rather milquetoast addition to the young-alienated-women subgenre that has become all the vogue in the last few years. Like most books that belong to this category, The Four Humors is centred around a 20-something woman leading a rather directionless existence. Sibel is a 26-year-old Turkish American woman who is a bit morbid, somewhat disaffected, and prone to self-sabotage. Similarly to other protagonists of this subgenre such as My Year Of Rest and Relaxation (here we the mc’s believes that a prolonged ‘sleep’ will ‘cure’ her of her ‘malaise’), Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily R. Austin (here the mc is obsessed with death), and Nobody, Somebody, Anybody by Kelly McClorey (here the mc is in reverence of florence nightingale and prescribes herself an outlandish cure in order to pass her exams), the narrator and protagonist of The Four Humors has a quirky obsession: she looks to the four humors theory of ancient medicine to make sense of her recurring and persistent headaches as well as the ‘malaises’ affecting those around her. Like the other disconnected women populating these disaster-women books, Sibel is grieving the death of one of her parents and uses her new obsession as a coping mechanism. Her remoteness, inwardness, and navel-gazing are yet other traits exhibited by these self-destructive women.
The majority of the narrative takes place in Istanbul during the summer. Sibel, alongside her inoffensive ‘all-American’ boyfriend, has gone to Istanbul to, allegedly, visit her father’s grave. Here she stays with her doting grandmother whose declining health is a source of further apprehension for Sibel who finds herself seeking comfort in the idea of blood, bile, choler, and phlegm as being the cause for human beings’ physical and emotional troubles. Meanwhile, she’s unable and or unwilling to visit her father’s grave, but repeatedly claims that she has to her loved ones.
Time and again she will go on about the theory of four humors but rather than making her into an interesting character, her obsession with this ancient physiology resulted in a lot of repetition. Sibel’s narration was boring, and her constant asides on bile, phlegm etc., further bogged down her story. Her narration lacked the wry social commentary and dark sense of humor that make reads such as Luster, You Exist Too Much, and Pizza Girl into such engaging reads.

Nothing much happens. Sibel avoids going to her father’s grave, she lies about it, her boyfriend seems to grow weary of how closed-off she’s become, and we are later introduced to her cousin and sister, both of which are beautiful or possess something Sibel feels she lacks. Her sister is anorexic and this whole subplot irritated me profoundly as I disliked the way her ED is depicted and treated by other characters. The latter half of the novel then is more about old family ‘secrets’. A portion of the book is dedicated to Sibel’s grandmother’s story, but this is related by Sibel whose voice failed to catch my attention.

This novel brought to mind The Idiot, but if I were to compare the two The Four Humors would not come out on top. I wasn’t surprised to discover that Mina Seckin has, in fact, read The Idiot, and both the tone of her story and her mumblecore dialogues seemed a bit too reminiscent of Elif Batuman’s novel.
The Four Humors is not a memorable addition to the alienated young women literary trend. If you’ve read any of the books from this list, well, you won’t be particularly blown away from The Four Humors. While I could have probably forgiven this book for its lack of originality, the narrative had a humorless quality to it that was harder to look past.
Ultimately, the novel’s only strength, or most appealing aspect, lies in the grandmother/granddaughter relationship. There were the occasional passages that stood out to me but for the most part I found the author’s prose, and the content of her story, to be rather forgettable. The novel does have a strong sense of place and I liked the lazy dreamlike summer atmosphere permeating much of Sibel’s story. So, if you are looking for a read set in Turkey or one that tries to articulate complex things such as grief, numbness, and heartbreak, well, The Four Humors might be the right read for you.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

All the Lovers in the Night by Mieko Kawakami

Previously to reading All the Lovers in the Night, I’d read Breasts and Eggs, Heaven, and Ms. Ice Sandwich, by Mieko Kawakami. While I was not ‘fond’ of Breasts and Eggs, I did find her other books to be compelling. As the premise for All the Lovers in the Night did bring to mind Breasts and Eggs, I was worried that I would have a similarly ‘negative’ reading experience. Thankfully, I found All the Lovers in the Night to be insightful and moving. Even more so than Kawakami’s other works, All the Lovers in the Night adheres to a slice-of-life narrative. Yet, in spite of this, the story is by no means light-hearted or superficial. Kawakami approaches difficult topics with this deceptively simple storytelling. She renders the loneliness and anxiety of her central character with clarity and even empathy. Thirty-something Fuyuko Irie leads a solitary life working from home as a freelance copy editor. Her inward nature led her former colleagues to single her out, and she was made to feel increasingly uncomfortable at her workplace. Working from home Fuyuko is able to avoid interacting with others, and seems content with her quiet existence. Fuyuko receives much of her work from Hijiri, an editor who is the same age as her but is very extroverted and possesses a forceful personality. Hijiri, for reasons unknown to Fuyuko, regularly keeps in touch with her and seems to consider her a friend. Perhaps their differences cause Fuyuko to begin questioning her lifestyle. Compared to her glamorous friend, Fuyuko sees herself, to borrow Jane Eyre’s words, as “obscure, plain and little”. But venturing outside the comfort of her home has become difficult for Fuyuko. To work up the courage she begins drinking alcohol, even if her body doesn’t respond well to it. She eventually begins going to a cafe with an older man. While the two speak of nothing much, they seem happy to exchange tentative words with one another.
I can see that this is not the type of novel that will appeal to those readers who are keen on plot-driven stories. However, if you are looking for an affecting character study, look no further. Through Fuyuko’s story, the author addresses how Japanese society sees and treats women who are deemed no longer ‘young’. Marriage, motherhood, and a career seem to be the requirements for many Japanese women. Those like Fuyuko are considered outside of the norm and because of this, they find themselves alienated from others. Fuyuko’s self-esteem is badly affected by this to the point where she feels that she has to go outside her comfort zone, even if the only way to do so is through inebriation. At a certain point, I was worried that Kawakami would make Hijiri into the classic fake/mean female character who is portrayed as aggressive, promiscuous, and a woman-hater to boot. Thankfully that was not the case. While Hijiri is not necessarily a likeable person Kawakami doesn’t paint her as a one-dimensional bitch and her relationship with Fuyuko isn’t sidetracked in favour of the romantic subplot. And yes, on the ‘romance’…I will say that this man wasn’t as nuanced as Fuyuko. I found him slightly boring and generic. I did like that the relationship between the two forms has a very slow build-up to it and the ending will certainly subvert many readers’ expectations.
Anyway, overall I rather enjoyed this. I liked the melancholic mood permeating Fuyuko’s story, the descriptions of Tokyo, the mumblecore dialogues, the way Kawakami articulates Fuyuko’s discomfort, anxiety, etc. Now and again there were even moments of humour and absurdity that alleviated Fuyuko’s more depressing experiences. I also appreciated the novel’s open-ended nature, which added an extra layer of realism to Fuyuko’s story. While some of Fuyuko’s actions aren’t given a ‘why’ or closely inspected, as we read on we begin to understand more fully her various state of mind and how these affect her behaviour.
While the dialogues did have a realistic rhythm, the secondary characters (who usually did most of the talking given that our main character isn’t a talker) did tend to go on very long and weirdly specific monologues that seemed at times incredibly random or oddly revealing. This is something I noticed in other works by Kawakami. Secondary characters go on endless rants or whatnot while our main character gives little to no input. It seems a bit unusual that Fuyumu would come across so many people who are willing to go on these very long monologues that reveal personal stuff. Even so, I did find the majority of the dialogues to be effective.
All the Lovers in the Night is a work of subtle beauty and I look forward to revisiting it again in the future.

re-read: the narrative possess a quality of impermanence that is truly rare in literature. i love the attention that the author gives to Fuyuko’s various environments and the incredibly tactile descriptions. the way the author writes about light reminded me of Yūko Tsushima. i loved re-reading this and i really appreciated how the author prioritises female relationships in this narrative. the relationships and interactions between the various women within this narrative are by no means positive or easy but they speak of the kind of images and norms that their families, communities, and society have inculcated into them. additionally, the author shows how women can perpetuate misogynistic views and attitudes (casting judgement on how other women dress, their sex lives, their marital status) as well how all-consuming and toxic female friendships can be. Fuyuko’s unwillingness to conform to widely accepted ideals of womanhood and her (partly) self-imposed isolation brought to mind Charlotte Brontë’s Lucy Snowe. additionally, the way kawakami navigates her loneliness and creativity reminded me of Lily King’s Writers & Lovers.
despite the issues addressed within the narrative—sexual assault, alcoholism, misogyny, alienation—Fuyuko’s voice has this lulling rhythm that made it easy for me to become immersed by what i was reading. while in my original review i criticised the novel for its ‘monologues’ this second time around i actually found these far more credible as it was easy to see why people would open up to Fuyuko. sad and wistful, All the Lovers in the Night ultimately struck me as luminous character analysis that captures with bittersweet accuracy the realities of leading a lonely existence, missed connections, and the long-lasting repercussions of traumatic experiences.

my rating: ★★

Chemistry by Weike Wang

“Chemistry, while powerful, is sometimes unpredictable.”

Chemistry makes for a quick yet compelling read. While the narrative tries a bit too hard to be quirky, I did find certain scenes and or sections to be fairly amusing. Chemistry implements those ‘in’ literary devices such as an unnamed narrator and a lack of speech marks that I find somewhat predictable. Still, the story focuses on a Chinese American woman in her thirties who is studying for a PhD in chemistry. She’s in a relationship with a seemingly ‘good’ white guy who seems ready to take their relationship to the next stage (marriage). But, like a lot of contemporary female narrators, our mc is not feeling sure of anything. She’s struggling to keep up with the demanding hours of her PhD, overwhelmed by the pressure of other people’s expectations, and confused by her own feelings and emotions (she feels too much, nothing at all). While our narrator is initially able to go through the motions of her everyday life, she eventually slips behind her PhD. Her partner begins to grow restless at our narrator’s perpetual ambivalence towards the future, and soon enough our protagonist’s life begins falling apart. As we read of her present tribulations we are given insight into her experiences growing up. Her focus on academic success was instilled in her by her parents who always seemed dissatisfied with her, even when she studies what they want her to. In examining her relationship with her parents and the way they brought her up the narrator discusses the stereotypes about Asian parents. She also talks about the everyday microaggressions she experiences, particularly working as a woc in a field that is predominantly male. The author also captures those quarter-life crisis uncertainties that make you question whether the ‘path’ you are on is leading somewhere and if it is, whether you really want to reach that destination. The narrator’s growing discontent over her studies certainly resonated with me as I’m currently in my final year of my masters and I feel academically exhausted to the point where I considered (and still am) dropping out. It is particularly frustrating to see that no matter how hard you work or try, you don’t get the results/grades you hope for. On top of that, the narrator also has a dissolving relationship to cope with. While her partner is presented as this supportive nice guy he repeatedly fails to understand where she’s coming from, seems unable to understand her point of view, and remains blissfully unaware of his own privilege (as a cis straight white man from a financially and emotionally stable family).
Our main character’s best friend, who is also nameless and referred to as ‘the best friend’, is also having troubles of her own as soon after giving birth discovers that her husband is betraying her.
While these may all sound like heavy topics the tone of this story is very much light and comical. As I mentioned above, the narrative goes for this offbeat kind of tone that at times comes across as contrived. There were numerous instances where I did not find the narrator funny. There is a running-gag of sorts where she explains a joke to someone because her sense of humor is just so quirky that people don’t always get it. I did find her somewhat endearing. For example, in this scene, where her best friend is once again venting about her cheating husband: “This is all your fault, she says to one of the posters. You did this to him, you and your female wiles. Then she moves on to next poster. I follow and apologize to each woman in turn.”. Or when she imagines what her best friend’s baby is thinking: “The baby has become sentient. When we walk, she screams across the street at other babies, baby expletives, we think. Something along the line of Goddamn it, other baby, don’t try to out-cute me. To make matters worse, she is very cute, so we have a hard time correcting her.”. The writing could certainly be effective and I appreciated the way the author articulates these difficult to pin down feelings & fears. The narrator’s inner monologue is punctuated by scientific anecdotes that certainly fitted her background. While some of her jokes were misses, and her never-ending silly witticism did detract from her actual story, there were a couple of times where I found her genuinely funny.

“It is a double-edged sword.
To be smart and beautiful, says the best friend, and this is probably very close to what every woman wants. I too had high hopes of growing up into both a genius and a bombshell.
To be Marie Curie but then to also look like Grace Kelly.”

While the dialogue often rang true to life (in a mumblecore sort of way), some of the characters struck me as thinly rendered. The boyfriend for example is incredibly generic and exceedingly dull to the point where I did not feel at all affected by his departure. And, while I believed that the narrator is lonely, I wasn’t at all convinced that she loved him. Similarly, I didn’t buy into her bond with the math student she’s tutoring. I would have liked to see more of her parents or that they had not been painted in a negative light for 80% of the story. Still, overall, I liked Chemistry. I listened to the audiobook which was narrated by Julia Whelan, who, bear in mind is one of my favorite narrators, wasn’t the best ‘voice’ for this. That is to say that there are plenty of talented Asian American female narrators who could have narrated Chemistry.
If you are looking for a humorous take on failure, self-fulfilment, parental and self-pressure, loneliness and connection, Chemistry might be your perfect next read. I can see this novel
appealing to fans of Win Me Something by Kyle Lucia Wu, Edge Case by YZ Chin, and Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang, all which also focus on young(ish) alienated Asian American women who feel stuck or caught in a directionless spiral. If you are a fan of the contemporary literary trend which is disaffected/directionless female protagonists who don’t feel so good, well, this title may a great addition to your tbr. I look forward to reading whatever Wang publishes next!

my rating: ★★★¼

Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang

“Who knows. I could change my mind. It is changing all the time.”

Days of Distraction should have been right up my street. Alas, it turned out not to be the ‘wry’, ‘tender’, and ‘offbeat coming-of-adulthood tale’ its blurb promised it’d be. Our quasi-unnamed narrator is a Chinese American woman in her early twenties who works at a tech publication. Her boyfriend is this generic white guy, who’s aptly enough referred to by just the one letter, J. The prose is plain & dry, the characters are as flat and thin as paper, the storyline is slow and repetitive. The narrator decides to follow J to Ithaca, an upstate New York town, where he will be completing his degree. She works a bit from home but soon finds herself growing bored by her new life. She invests most of her time delving into American history and interracial relationships. Great chunks of text read as if belonging to a textbook, and in fact, I’d go as far as to say that the author should have either committed to writing a work of fiction or gone for an essay on this subject matter.
The narrative does highlight the sexism and racism our protagonist encounters at work and during her everyday life. In her old job, her managers are unwilling to give her a raise, confuse her with the other Asian American employee, or say inappropriate/racist/sexist things. Our protagonist doesn’t have a personality as such. She’s very much a generic millennial who expresses the typical woes and worries that are bound to arise during a person’s twenties. Her quarter-mid life crisis is a very subdued one. Nothing much happens. She has some awkward encounters or conversations, her boyfriend seems to minimise her experiences with racism (implying that she’s taken something ‘the wrong way’ or that that person ‘meant well’ and other yike-ey stuff like this). She eventually goes to visit her father who lives in China and here the story finally felt a bit more engaging, but sadly this section is rather short and that epilogue killed what little enthusiasm I had for this novel.
The dynamic between her and J was so boring and flat. They are together for reasons beyond me. Our narrator is not particularly likeable, which, if you know my book tastes, is not a problem. However, I do want some sort of personality. And this gal had none. I found her unfunny, uninteresting, and unpleasant. Is she entirely unsympathetic? No. However, she never struck me as a fully-realised person. J is even worse. He’s a white male straight American. That’s more or less his whole character. He was painfully bland. I did not care for him in the least nor was I at any point convinced by his relationship with our mc. I guess they were both boring?
This novel had potential but it very much lacked zing. The author’s sparse prose combined with her insipid character results in a rather underwhelming affair. Add to that those large portions of text that read as if straight from a textbook and there you have it, a snoozefest. The one aspect I did enjoy was our mc’s phone calls to her parents. I ended up rather liking her parents and I found myself wishing that they would play a bigger role in the narrative (the mc also has siblings but they have 0 impact on the story and her character). There were paragraphs or lines now and again that sort of struck a chord with me but they did not make up for the mc’s waffling and self-pitying outweighed those few insightful moments.
While I won’t be dissuading anyone from reading this I do feel the need to recommend Edge Case as an alternative. While not perfect it did delve a bit more deeply into the realities of being a woc working in the tech industry. And if you are looking for more books following alienated women in their 20s I have made a list over here.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Happy Hour by Marlowe Granados

“It takes practice to have restraint, and we are not yet at an age to try it out.”



As the title and cover themselves suggest, Happy Hour is the book equivalent of an aperitif. I’m thinking of an Aperol spritz and some black olives. Nice enough while you’re having them but once they are gone you’re prepared to move onto something more substantial. That is not to say that Happy Hour has no merits, if anything, my frustration towards this novel stems from the fact that, in many ways, this could have been an excellent read. But, it was an unfunny, shallow, and monotonous story about young pretty people who enjoy drinking and eating at ‘in’ bodegas.

Happy Hour implements the kind of literary devices and motifs that are all the rage in a certain subset of millennial literature. We have a wry narrator who is in her twenties, prone to self-sabotage, alienated 24/7, and leading a rather directionless life. While she does feel detached from those around her, her running commentary is as sharp as a knife. The dialogues have a mumblecore vibe to them so that many of the conversations sound like something we ourselves have heard in RL (the kind of small talk that happens at wannabe-artsy-parties etc). Sadly, I found many of the scenes in Happy Hour to be repetitive and interchangeable with one another. Isa and Gala meet up with some people they may or may not know at a bar or at someone’s flat. They get tipsy, or drunk, talk about nothing in particular with the other guests, and eventually make their way back home by grabbing a taxi. They try to get by sponging off other people, setting up a market stall where they halfheartedly try to sell clothes, pose as models for artists, or even by going to bars and being paid (cash + unlimited drinks) by the owner to attract more clients (making in 3 hours what would take me, a minimum-wage-worker, a whole-ass shift). Because of their immigration status, they cannot apply to ‘desk jobs’, but we never really learn much about that. Their past is very intentionally shrouded in mystery, barely alluded to. I assume they are Canadian given that they speak English fluently and that they seem familiar with American/Western culture.
I sort of resented the implication that they are ‘survivors’. They may not have a family to fall back onto, but A) they have each other B) they have travelled and can earn money fairly easily because they are young and pretty C) they are CONNECTED. In what could seem like a running-gag of sorts Isa always seems to come across someone she knows. Most of their ‘friends’ and acquaintances seem well-off and educated and these two are able to go out partying every night or so without actually spending all of their money this way. They make no conscious effort to save up, wasting money on the kind of meals that will not be filling or nutritious (ever heard of rice and beans? clearly not) nor do they try to put a stop to their night lifestyle. While they are quick, Isa especially, to notice how privileged the people around them are, they seem unaware that beauty is a currency and that their ability to party every night or earn money modelling or sponge off rich obnoxious men is directly proportional to their physical apperance.

Isa has ‘suffered’; one of the men she sort of sees briefly during the course of the novel ghosts her or something along those lines and not for one second was I convinced that she was truly broken up about it. The author really tries to make her sound jaded and caustic but her observations were predictably vanilla, and, worst still, always seem to posit her in a good light. The dynamic between Isa and Gala was the most disappointing aspect of the novel. As I’ve said, I’m all for complicated female friendships like the one in Moshfegh’s MYORAR, or between Ferrante’s Lila and Lenù or Morrison’s Sula and Nel or Ruchika Tomar’s Cale and Penny. But here, eh. Isa is clearly better than Gala. Gala is selfish, superficial, a bad friend and possibly even a bad person. She’s a fake whose only moments of vulnerability are an act to earn ‘male’ attention or sympathy from others. And I hate that they have to resort to the kind of ‘who has a right to be sad’ pissing content. Gala was born in Sarajevo but Isa ridicules the fact that the Bosnian war may have traumatised her since she left when she was just a ‘baby’ (as if her parents’ trauma couldn’t have possibly have affected her growing up) and immediately has to mention her own ACTUAL trauma (her mom died, i think). Like, ma che cazzo? And before you say, clearly Isa believes herself to be the good guy, well, other characters consolidate this narrative of her being GOOD and Gala bad. Every guy they come across prefers Isa to Gala, all of their ‘shared’ friends don’t give two shits about Gala but care about Isa etc etc.
And, boy, the storyline was just so very repetitive. Yeah, the author is able to convey a sort of artsy-academic-hipster-millennial atmosphere however, even if a lot of the dialogues in her novel sound like actual conversations (the type you may overhear at parties or in a bar or even while using public transport) that doesn’t result in an incredibly realistic and or compelling narrative. Isa was a very one-dimensional vapid character who manages to be both dull and irksome. She’s a twenty-something possibly Canadian woman who describes herself as being both Pinoy and Salvadoreña. She was raised by her mother after her father decided to go MIA or whatever. Her mother died a few years ago and even if Isa barely acknowledges her, her presence is felt by her absence. While I appreciated the author’s subtle approach to Isa’s grief, my heart did not warm up to Isa. I wanted to like her and some of her comments about modern culture or the so-called millennial malaise were relatable(ish), but, I disliked how full of herself she was but not in an obvious egomaniacal sort of way, no, in a more self-pitying, ‘I’m Not Like Other People’, way. She has to put with Gala and the mean people she meets at her parties and her limbs ache after hours spent lying still for a painting and she’s always the one making the money whereas Gala does fuck all and it isn’t fair that horrible socialites have it better than her. Her navel-gazing wasn’t particularly amusing, her moments of introspection struck me as self-dramatising, and her observations on class, identity, and life in New York were rather banal. Worst of all, Isa’s dry narration is profoundly unfunny. She sounds exactly like the people she’s so quick to ridicule.

I will say that I did enjoy reading her thoughts on the art of conversation and I did find the novel to have a strong atmosphere and sense of place. You can easily envision the kind of events and parties the girls take part in, as well as the kind of crowds occupying these places. It just so happens that like Isa herself I’m not all that keen on the rich and pretentious. Unlike Isa however, I do not, and would not want to, move in their same circles. For all her complaining Isa doesn’t really try to forge more meaningful connections nor did she seem to really care about Gala. Their friendship seemed one of convenience and nothing else.

That’s more or less it. I wouldn’t have minded if Isa’s voice had been as amusing and entertaining as say the main character in Luster or My Year of Rest and Relaxation or Pretend I’m Dead or You Exist Too Much or The Idiot. It just so happens that I actively disliked Isa. This is weird given that the mcs from the novels I’ve just mentioned are not necessarily nice or kind or strictly likeable. But I found myself drawn to them all the same. Isa just pissed me off. She’s constantly painting herself as the better friend or the better person, and other characters are shown to be bad or mean or shallow. In My Year of Rest and Relaxation both the narrator and her ‘best friend’ are depicted as solipsistic, often immature, decidedly toxic people. Here instead Isa is the good guy and almost every other character is bad (because they are wealthy, white, pretentious, superficial etc.). At one point she’s at a gay bar (if i recall correctly) and someone asks her what she’s doing there and that this isn’t a place for her housemate fends him off immediately (saying something like “she’s my sister you old, white queen”). I’m not keen on authors using gay characters to ‘defend’ straight ones from other lgbtq+ people. Like, it’s okay because a gay character is telling off another gay character. He called her ‘his sister’ so that makes her what, part of the queer community?! This scene just rubbed me up the wrong way. What, Isa has a right to be in gay spaces because she has a gay friend and she’s just Not Like Other Straight People? Ma daje!

While, yes, I did dislike and was bored by Isa as well her story’s supposed storyline (don’t get me wrong i love a good ol’ slice-of-life now and again but here these parties & co were so samey and intent only on satirising millennials & the-so-called upper-crust) I actually liked the author’s style.
It’s a pity that I wasn’t able to connect to Isa (or anyone else for the matter). The cast of ever-changing characters made it hard for me to become familiar with anyone really. Many of them also happen to have silly posh sounding nicknames or names that make it even harder to remember who-the-hell-was-who. Some just exist only in the space of a single scene or to deliver a throwaway line and nothing else besides. The men around Isa all blurred into one generic asshole-ish kind of man. The story ends on a cheesy note, with Isa being ready to finally talk about her past.
But I don’t wish to dissuade prospective readers from giving this a shot. If you liked Jo Hamya’s Three Romes or Kavita Bedford’s Friends & Dark Shapes you might like this more than I was able to. It just so happens that, as stated above, I hated Isa and found her narrative to have one too many of the same kind of scenes/conversations. I would have liked more variety in the story and the characters themselves. All in all, it left me wanting.

If you liked it or were able to relate to Isa, I’m happy for you, in fact, I wish that I could say the same. Please avoid leaving ‘you are stupid/wrong/well actually I loved Isa and you are clearly missing the point’ comments. I’m fully aware that the dislike Isa elicited in me is entirely subjective.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Friends & Dark Shapes by Kavita Bedford

That is the truth of someone’s character: how a person makes you feel after you walk away from spending time with them.”

Kavita Bedford’s Friends & Dark Shapes is an exceedingly millennial novel. We have a directionless and nameless narrator, a modern flâneur who is afflicted by a vague sense of ennui. There are no quotation marks because apparently, they are passé, and a meandering story that consists of a series of ‘relatable’ vignettes portraying disagreements between housemates, commutes, get-togethers, conversations with strangers.
Our Indian-Australian narrator is approaching thirty and she works as a freelance journalist. She lives with three other people who are around her age. The narrative strings together snapshots of her everyday life in Sydney, capturing certain moments or conversations that our narrator has indoors and when she’s out and about. While the manner in which she observes those around her is somewhat anthropological, the people populating this novel never come truly in focus. They are hazy renditions of a certain type of person, and they never struck me as particularly fleshed out our multidimensional. The narrator too is exceedingly generic. Her voice, if anything, is far too mild and forgettable compared to other millennial narrators. Her housemates functioned as comedic relief, either giving witty spiels about the state of the world today or ‘relatable’ lines about their love lives or jobs. For some reason when they voiced their concerns over their future (especially when they talked about mortgages) I just felt really disconnected from them. Maybe because in my eyes most of them were already doing the kind of careers they wanted to (ahem i am stuck in customer service hell), well, their worries frustrated me somewhat. Maybe those who are closer to them in age will be able to get them in a way I couldn’t…

The narrator often thinks about her father, who died sometime before the beginning of the novel. Childhood episodes pepper her narrative and these don’t really give us a clear image of this man nor of his relationship with her.
Still, I did like Bedford’s vibrant portrayal of Sydney. She renders its rhythms, giving us some vivid descriptions of its streets and neighbourhoods. The dialogues too, if repetitive, had this mumblecore quality that I appreciated and it suited the naturalistic tone of the novel. The narrator often slips into a collective ‘we’ to describe certain events/situations or when making ‘relatable’ millennial statements. I can’t say that I was a fan of this technique as it succeeded in blurring different characters and their voices together.

my rating: ★★★¼

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Lizard by Banana Yoshimoto

I have noticed that when I review a novel or novella Yoshimoto I always describe them as being ‘quintessentially’ Yoshimoto. The reason why is that every time I read something by her, I know, without a doubt, that what I am reading is indeed a work of Yoshimoto. Her breezy style and her slice of life storytelling are certainly idiosyncratic. Her narrators do tend to sound very similar to each other—they can be surprisingly cheerful, prone to navel-gazing, and tend to view their surroundings through dream tinted glasses—yet they never fail to capture my attention. Regardless of whether I find what they are saying to be rather banal or baffling, their commentary is often amusing and I enjoy seeing the world through their eyes.

Lizard comprises six short stories, each following a different, yet indelibly Yoshimoto-esque, character. In ‘Newlywed’ a recently married man finds himself not wanting to go home so he stays on the train instead of getting off at his stop. He’s then drawn into a peculiar conversation with an elderly man, who our narrator presumes to be homeless. The man’s ‘ordinary’ appearance belie his true nature, and what follows is a peculiar, and rather surreal, conversation about nothing in particular that nevertheless leaves its mark on our protagonist. In ‘Lizard’ a 29-year-old man is drawn to a woman with the tattoo of a lizard. They both have lived through some extremely traumatic experiences and find kinship in each other (i will say that their ‘pasts’ did seem a wee bit ott). The following story, ‘Helix’, I did not entirely understand. It seems to have no discernible story but two characters who talk about memories (maybe?). In ‘Dreaming of Kimchee’ a woman is having an affair with a married man. When he leaves his wife for her she worries that the maxim ‘Once a Cheater, Always a Cheater?’ will prove correct. ‘Blood and Water’ follows a young woman whose parents belong to a cult. She runs away to Tokyo and begins working in a design studio. In the last story, ‘A Strange Tale from Down by the River’, a woman who used to lead quite an active sexual life decides to leave this lifestyle behind once she falls ill. She then begins a relationship with a man who knows nothing about her ‘past’ and becomes worried that he may not want to be with her once he knows of her orgy-filled days.
Written in Yoshimoto’s usual spare yet vibrant prose, these stories repeatedly blur the line between reality and fantasy. Although many of the interactions and discussions that occur within this collection are grounded in realism they are permeated by a subtle sense of the surreal. I did not much care for ‘Lizard’ or ‘Blood and Water’ and ‘Helix’ left no real impression on me but I did enjoy ‘Newlywed’ and ‘Dreaming of Kimchee’. My favourite was probably ‘A Strange Tale from Down by the River’. All in all, I would mostly recommend this collection to readers who are already familiar with Yoshimoto’s work. Her style and brand of quietly weird stories aren’t for everybody. I, for one, find her storytelling oddly comforting and will probably end up making my way through her oeuvre.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Idiot by Elif Batuman

When you heard -miş, you knew that you had been invoked in your absence—not just you but your hypocrisy, cowardice, and lack of generosity. Every time I heard it, I felt caught out.

Equal parts cerebral and droll, The Idiot relates the humdrum tribulations of a Turkish-American Harvard freshman. Set in the mid-nineties The Idiot provides an incredibly immersive reading experience that will not appeal to those looking for a more story-driven read. Selin’s narrative lacks momentum, her daily interactions, however peculiar, often serve no real plot function, adding little to her story. Yet, the author’s commitment to commit even the most prosaic of Selin’s thoughts or encounters adds a dimension of realism to her novel. The Idiot is very much characterised by seemingly endless digressions. Selin’s inner monologue often verges on being a stream-of-consciousness, as her mind flutters from thought to thought, often losing herself in asides or navel-gazing. While Selin is certainly naive, she does possess a certain awareness of her own limitations and shortcomings. The first half of the novel recounts her first year at university. Like many other disoriented heroines, aside from her vague aspirations of becoming a writer, Selin is unsure of what she wants to study, let alone who she is or wants to be. At Harvard, she takes classes on literature but seems dissatisfied by the way her professor teaches this subject (her criticism towards academia certainly resonated with me here) and seems to find her Russian class far more interesting. This is partly due to Ivan. He’s Hungarian, a few years older than her, and a mathematics student. Rather by chance, the two begin an email correspondence, one that is full of existential angst or studenty speculations about the meaning of x or y. Their virtual rapport doesn’t translate well in real life and when in the proximity of one another they often are unable to clearly express their ideas or feelings. Selin’s narrative is very much concerned with (mis)communication. Her mind grows increasingly preoccupied with language from its limitations to its potential.
In the latter half of the novel Selin, persuaded by Ivan, spends her summer teaching ESL classes in Hungary. Here she has to confront the possibility that she may have been idealising her and Ivan’s will-they-won’t-they relationship.
The dialogues within this novel ring incredibly true to life. They have this mumblecoreesque quality—awkward pauses, recursiveness, mishearing—that made those scenes come to life. The characters populating the narrative—Ivan, Svetlana, Selin’s roommates and the other ESL teachers—also came across as realistic. While some of their idiosyncrasies are certainly played up for laughs, that the author was able to capture in such minute detail the particular way in which they express themselves made them all the more vivid. At times Selin’s interactions with others do stray into absurdist territories but I found that more often than not I could definitely relate to her more eccentric conversations.
Selin’s narrative is certainly adroit. Interspersed throughout her narration are many literary references as well as detailed descriptions or accounts of whatever other subject she is discussing or thinking about. I found the conversations around West/East to be particularly entertaining. In spite of her supposed ‘idiocy’ Selin makes for a sharp-eyed narrator. Her insights into human behaviour and the academic world, as well as her exploration of the possibilities and failures of language, struck me as being both shrewd and funny.
While we do read of Selin’s innermost feelings Elif Batuman keeps us at a remove from her. In this way, she emphasises the alienation, loneliness, unease, Selin herself experiences throughout the novel. While the title does seem to be a nod at Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel, Selin has little in common with Prince Myshkin. If anything, Batuman seems to have a Flaubertian preoccupation with failure. In a manner not too dissimilar from Emma Bovary, Selin’s longing to be with Ivan seemed to be less a result of love than her desire to experience that which she has read in so many books.
Under different hands The Idiot could have been a dull affair. It is Batuman’s deadpan humor and naturalistic storytelling that make The Idiot into a worthwhile read. The novel’s latter half was slightly less enjoyable than the first but I was still for the most part absorbed by Selin’s voice. Her passivity may rub people the wrong way but I found the myriad of uncertainties plaguing her to make all the more believable. If you liked Susan Choi’s My Education you might want to give this a shot.


my rating: ★★★¾

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Nobody, Somebody, Anybody by Kelly McClorey

“I dreaded spring, the harassment of a pleasant sunny day. But it came anyway, and with the trees budding outside my window, I said, Okay, time to live again.”

The cover and summary led me to believe that Nobody, Somebody, Anybody would be yet another My Year of Rest and Relaxation copycat so I was relatively surprised to discover that style and tone-wise this novel shares far more in common with Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman and Hilary Leichter’s Temporary. While by no means incompetently written Kelly McClorey’s debut was a bit too vanilla for my taste, and, there were instance in which her prose brought to mind Jenny Offill’s Weather (not a favourite of mine).

“I would choose suffering over indifference any day. As Florence Nightingale said, out of nothing comes nothing, but out of suffering might come the cure—give me pain over paralysis!”

Amy Harney, our protagonist, is in her late twenties and working as a chambermaid at a yacht club while waiting to retake the EMT exam at the end of the summer. Still grieving her mother’s death Amy avoids her father and brother. After becoming persona non grata at her university Amy has also no friends. In spite of her bizarrely positive work-attitude, which really did remind me of Murata’s Keiko, her supervisor doesn’t seem to like her that much.
To ward off loneliness Amy opens her landlord’s post, only to one day discover that he paid a subscription to find a Ukrainian wife. As he waits for his fiancé’s visa her landlord, Gary, begins to test out recipes on Amy, in order to hone his culinary skills. Amy, who tries to be what other people want her to be, seems happy to be a sympathetic ear to him, dispensing praise and helpful advice.
Meanwhile, to guarantee her success at the exam Amy prescribes herself a placebo: she will act as if she has already passed the EMT exam, going so far as to tell others about it and to create counterfeit documents and ids.
The more time she spends with Gary, the more she likes the feeling of belonging. Alas, others do eventually begin picking up on her obsessive, and increasingly delusional, behaviour.

While at first, I found Amy’s irrationally upbeat narration quirky, her story did feel relatively unremarkable. This is yet another novel starring an alienated American millennial who is disconnected from others, if not reality itself. Amy tells herself that she wants to be an EMT, but as her fixation towards Gary grows, she loses sight of what had until then motivated her. More often than in her desperate attempts at connection Amy puts people off. Because Amy lacks both social skills and self-awareness she tends to make faux pas, ignores other people’s privacy, and falls prey to idiosyncratic flights of fancy. She finds some comfort in quoting or thinking about Florence Nightingale, who is her idol (I did wonder whether Amy was aware of the not-so-great things Lytton Strachey had written about Nightingale…).

In spite of her zesty narration, I never felt all that taken or enthused by Amy. She remained somewhat amorphous, which sometimes works in favour of a character but here it didn’t. The mumblecoresque dialogues weren’t as funny as they portended to be, and Amy’s experiences working as a cleaner did not hold a candle to Mona’s ones in Pretend I’m Dead. This brings me to my biggest problem with this novel: its style, tone, characters, and story bring nothing new to the self-sabotaging-maladaptive-millennial genre. Amy’s placebo cure also left me somewhat wanting as I was excepting something slightly more unorthodox.

Nobody, Somebody, Anybody lacked the originality of Murata and Leichter’s novels, nor was it as darkly funny or razor-sharp as Pizza Girl, Luster, or Pizza Girl. The author’s take on contemporary malaise didn’t feel particularly insightful or clever. Still, I think that readers who haven’t read all those novels that I just mentioned may find this more entertaining than I did. For me, however, this a rather unremarkable read that sits somewhere between Dolan’s not-so-exciting Exciting Times and Austin’s Everyone in This Room Will Someday be Dead. These books may have the odd funny moment but other than that…non sono un granché.

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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