In 2010, Elif Batuman came out with her first book, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. This was a collection of essays drawing upon her academic pursuit of Russian literature and whereas this initial offering was about understanding life through literature, her second book — and debut novel — The Idiot explores the hardships of finding one’s voice as an undergraduate student.
Set in the mid 1990s, The Idiot takes us back to the good old days before mobile phones were ubiquitous, when the internet was still a novelty, and when our lives didn’t revolve around technology. The novel tells the story of a young woman, Selin, who has come to Harvard University as a freshman and finds herself completely lost. She has high academic aspirations and wants to enrich her university experiences by taking up many extra courses and doing volunteer work. However, the more she tries to bring structure to her life, the messier it gets. Selin, in short, is the ‘idiot’ from the title.
Because of her unusual name people initially express curiosity about her, only to lose interest when they learn that she was born in America. Nevertheless, Selin realises that as a child of Turkish immigrants she has grown up with a different set of values than her friends, which makes it even harder for her to adjust to her student life.
While it combines witty musings on identity, art, philosophy and linguistics, this debut novel is at heart a teenage love story
Split into two, the first part of the novel is devoted to Selin’s first year at Harvard; the second is an account of her vacation in Paris and her experience as a voluntary English teacher in Hungary.
Batuman gives her novel an amusing start, as Selin admits: “I didn’t know what email was until I got to college. I had heard of email, and knew that in some sense I would ‘have’ it.” Carrying on in a similar vein, Batuman deftly describes the awkwardness of her dorky protagonist and here, her writing style is genuinely funny. Just a few pages in, my expectations for the book were significantly raised as it seemed to promise everything I look for in a light read: a quirky central character, a cerebral love interest, random existential/philosophical musings, discussions on art and literature and an enlightening trip to a romantic yet intellectually rich place. After a while, however, Batuman’s minute observations of the most trivial details of Selin’s life at college became too meandering for my taste.
The characters populating the book are definitely interesting. Selin’s roommate Hannah is odd yet entertaining; one time she convinces Selin to hang a poster of Albert Einstein in her dormitory. Her friend Svetlana from Russian 101 is an audacious Eastern European girl who brings colour into Selin’s otherwise mundane life because in her company she forgets about most of her worries and finds Svetlana’s assuredness inspiring. And then — as it happens with most clichéd romances these days — there is the best friend Ralph, the nicest guy ever, who also happens to be gay.
Unlike her friends, Selin has no clue what she wants from college — or from life, for that matter. As soon as she arrives at Harvard she signs up for any number of seminars and courses because she believes that’s what she is supposed to do, but she still doesn’t quite understand exactly what she wants out of the whole experience. She doesn’t always agree with her teachers: she took up literature because she always enjoyed reading and discussing novels with her mother, but her professor has an entirely different approach to reading and everything he says seems to her to be somehow beside the point. For instance, when discussing Anna Karenina, Selin feels, “You wanted to know why Anna had to die, and instead they told you that 19th century Russian landowners felt conflicted about whether they were really a part of Europe.” In this scene, Batuman superbly highlights the shortcomings of academia where “the implication was that it was somehow naïve to talk about anything interesting, or to think that you would ever know anything important.” The professor insists on analysing literature while Selin wishes she could just know “what books really meant.”
In her linguistics class Selin finds her teacher’s detached view of language unacceptable. She is told, “all languages were equally complex and identically expressive of reality, differences in grammar couldn’t possibly correspond to different ways of thinking.” But she knows that she “thought differently in Turkish and in English — not because thought and language were the same, but because different languages forced you to think differently.” Throughout the book, Batuman draws heavily upon her own experience as a student of linguistics, but surprisingly she does so in a simple and accessible way.
The most prominent theme of The Idiot is the breakdown of communication. This is a constant source of worry for Selin. She falls in love with a Hungarian boy, Ivan, whom she meets in her Russian 101 class. When he moves to a different city, they connect through email and start a digital love affair. As a student of linguistics, Selin finds herself overanalysing each email sent by Ivan in order to uncover what was unsaid. Ivan, meanwhile, has his own idiosyncrasies; if Selin is obsessed with the slippery nature of language, he is fixated on the pessimistically existential view of life.
While The Idiot admittedly bursts with witty dialogues and Batuman is talented in her indirect critique of academia and personal relationships, it is unfortunate that after a while the story seems to drag, using a convoluted narrative arc to reach an inevitable ending. For its 400 pages there really isn’t that much of a plot or action. I had been quite looking forward to reading it ever since I read the blurb because in theory it seemed promising, but in reality it just didn’t work. It is clever, but lacks real substance as, despite the philosophical musings, at its heart it is simply a teenage love story — albeit an intelligent one. Perhaps it should have been marketed as such. Nevertheless, The Idiot can hold its own as a young adult romance and can be a good alternative to pop culture romances.
The reviewer is an Ankara-based freelance writer
By Elif Batuman
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 7th, 2017