13 March 2017
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
A portrait of the artist as a young woman. A novel about not just discovering but inventing oneself.
The year is 1995, and email is new. Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, arrives for her freshman year at Harvard. She signs up for classes in subjects she has never heard of, befriends her charismatic and worldly Serbian classmate, Svetlana, and, almost by accident, begins corresponding with Ivan, an older mathematics student from Hungary. Selin may have barely spoken to Ivan, but with each email they exchange, the act of writing seems to take on new and increasingly mysterious meanings.
[redacted due to SPOILERS]
With superlative emotional and intellectual sensitivity, mordant wit, and pitch-perfect style, Batuman dramatizes the uncertainty of life on the cusp of adulthood. Her prose is a rare and inimitable combination of tenderness and wisdom; its logic as natural and inscrutable as that of memory itself. The Idiot is a heroic yet self-effacing reckoning with the terror and joy of becoming a person in a world that is as intoxicating as it is disquieting. Batuman's fiction is unguarded against both life's affronts and its beauty--and has at its command the complete range of thinking and feeling which they entail.
Alert: The Idiot has Bad Flap Copy Syndrome. It blows almost the entire plot, so FYI (see above). Our narrator and protagonist, Selin, is starting her first year at Harvard. She has two roommates who both strike her as strange in their own ways. She's mystified by the new email system she's told to use (side note: I started college in 1996 at the University of Iowa and, yes, that stuff was new and weird if you hadn't used it before). Selin tries out for the orchestra and finds that everyone plays violin. She's constantly unable to take classes that interest her (side note two: the "audition" system of picking college classes makes zero sense to me but apparently this is a thing?). She's pushed into volunteering as a math tutor that lead to several scenes of increasing absurdity like a Gogol short story. However, in her Russian class, she develops two important relationships: Croatian-American socialite (?) Svetlana, who becomes what appears to be Selin's best friend, and Hungarian international student Ivan, in his last year of undergrad.
The Idiot a very readable book, with excellent scenes and description. I had previously enjoyed Batuman's The Possessed, a book of essays about translation and Russian literature, and I remember thinking I'd like to see a novel from her. The Idiot is a true Bildungsroman, a campus novel about a intelligent, naive young woman's first year at Harvard University. First experiences, first roommates, first new friends, and first love. The novel seems almost plotless at times, just the record of one year in someone's life. I was very interested in the title, which reminded me of Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, about a young man trying to experience life (or find himself) who really gets the short-end of the stick when everyone assumes he's an idiot because he gives everyone the benefit of the doubt, as does Batuman's Selin.
I have some reservations about the ending. It isn't terrible but I didn't like it very much. It felt like the novel just ran out of gas and ended.
Dear FTC: I received a digital galley of this novel from the publisher via Edelweiss.