“The Idiot” By Elif Batuman. Penguin Press. March 2017. 432 pages. $27
The talented young New Yorker writer Elif Batuman has just published a novel that has some of us scratching our heads. Flush with the minutia of daily life including a generous and brilliant layering of humor, a bigger story arc seems to be missing. It’s an intriguing risk that may simply speak to a generational divide.
Entering Harvard University at 18, the story’s narrator, Selin Karadag, describes in tedious often hilarious detail the content of her reading material, her classes, her roommates and classmates, sleeping arrangements, trips off campus, discussions with professors, class projects, her thoughts about what she’s reading and, even, the text of a Russian novel that introductory Russian students are assigned to read. Author Batuman doesn’t gild the lily where Harvard is concerned in that no golden glow of privilege and brilliance emanates. There’s a universality in being a freshman away at college. In Selin’s world, while intelligence is taken for granted and musings reveal intellectual curiosity, sleeping arrangements in the dorm room require constant negotiation and infatuations still cause distress.
Selin finds herself tongue-tied a good deal of the time, which is complicated and funny because she loves linguistics, tutors people off campus in English as a Second Language, and wants to be a writer. She even wins a writing contest but the text, when published, is too small to be legible.
Vast amounts of new data come at Selin from all directions, including the Internet and email -- still novelties in 1995 and ’96 when this novel takes place. Selin hesitates before speaking, obstructed by the complexity and sheer mass of her observations, considerations and doubts. She’s a Turkish-American student who relies on thought and ideas when emotions threaten her equilibrium. She handles the many changes coming at her -- the move to college, the newness of the Internet and email communications, the distracting young Hungarian student Ivan -- the way we all confront the overwhelming. She involves herself in what’s right in front of her.
The single trackable narrative, other than the chronology of college, is Selin’s attraction to Ivan. They are in the same Russian class and begin an email correspondence, often conducted in sleepless, near-hallucinatory early morning hours. When they are together, Ivan carries the greater part of the conversation. He has a girlfriend but it’s clear that there’s something about Selin that keeps him coming back to her in real life and in email. Selin and many of her college friends are sexually inexperienced, a problem in that Selin doesn’t understand Ivan’s presence in her life. “I began to feel that I was living two lives,” she says, “one consisting of emails with Ivan, the other consisting of school.”
In a disorienting freshman year, Selin sustains a hypervigilant state. Her thoughts are interesting but, overall, she lacks emotional and psychological appeal. Ivan likes her ideas and so must we if we are to keep reading.
When thinking about whether one’s language influences the way one thinks, Selin argues that the Turkish use a “suffix, mix, that you put on verbs to report anything you didn’t witness personally. You were always stating your degree of subjectivity. You were always thinking about it, every time you opened your mouth.” Her mind is always busy.
Selin goes for runs along the Charles, shops at Filene’s Basement (she’s tall and wears a size 12 shoe) and takes the Green Line to a store that sells Russian foods and rents out Russian videos. It’s a depiction of the Boston area that feels accurate and comfortably familiar, especially if you’ve ever shopped in Filene’s Basement.
Speaking on National Public Radio recently, the author said she pulled a version of this novel from a drawer, found it a bit odd, and reworked it. “The Idiot” isn’t odd but it is demanding. For those hoping for a moment of clarity and emotional honesty, you’ll have it if you read to the very end.
-- Rae Francoeur is a freelance journalist and author. She can be reached at email@example.com.