“As funny and engaging as her first book led us to expect” – The Idiot by Elif Batuman

tiebEighteen year-old Selin, the American daughter of Turkish immigrants, is in her freshman year of Harvard, negotiating the usual gauntlet of obscure classes, weird teachers and weirder roommates, when she develops a crush on Ivan, a mathematics senior from Hungary who she’s met in her Russian language class. The Idiot charts Selin’s obsession with Ivan over the course of a year, but it’s not a love story, and neither is it a straightforward bildungsroman (nor even the kunstlerroman variant – Selin’s a writer, but mortified at the prospect of anyone reading her work, and in fact writes comparatively little over the course of the novel): rather it’s a meandering sideways poke at the interplay of language, books and everyday life. (Think Eugenides The Marriage Plot, but, you know, interesting.) Selin’s fascination with linguistics as well as her dual heritage and multilinguism means that Batuman presents us with a fascinating look at how words shape how we think and (fail to) communicate with one another: is Selin-in-Turkish a different person to Selin-in-English? How does the poetic email-Ivan that Selin first falls for relate to the brusque, risk-averse (and already-in-a-relationship) Ivan who takes her on long, sexless walks around campus? It’s not a plot-heavy book, but what development does exist isn’t so much about Selin and Ivan, but about Selin’s, and the reader’s, growing awareness of how we use and misuse language (and how it uses and misuses us) as we muddle along through life.

This makes it sound a little dull and very intense, but it’s not: despite the lack of actual action (classes are attended and skipped; a proto-relationship staggers on; Selin goes to Hungary to teach more classes) it’s very funny, packed with wry observational humour and snappy, agonised dialogue, and Batuman manages to take a very clichéd situation (the freshman year) and transform that very banality into a very entertaining take on the absurdity of the meanings, rules and conventions of everyday life. The ridiculousness of Selin’s love for Ivan – who is, mostly, very unlovable – doesn’t diminish her charm as a narrator: in fact, Batuman gets us through the entire year, with its requisite complement of obnoxious tutors, students and villagers, with barely any villainy. Like Ann Patchett, she gets considerable and admirable mileage out of her characters’ decency. She makes a virtue out of the drawn-out courtship between her two main characters: Selin’s inability to move on is likely, unfortunately, to be familiar to us all, and Batuman’s commitment to seeing it through allows her to explore not simply the irrationality of infatuation, but also the absurdity behind social/sexual expectations – Selin’s inability to parse the idea of ‘attractiveness’ makes us question how much we tailor our own desires to a generalised sense of convention. The university experience is here not revelatory, but an unsurprising cascade of getting used to confusion and disappointment, and Batuman makes that itself a revelation, insofar as it’s not what we’re used to getting from books about teens making their debuts in the world. While it’s a long book (albeit an entertaining one), its uneventfulness is what makes the length necessary: you can’t get across the absurdity of an accretion of aimless encounters consolidating into a ‘relationship’ without doing the legwork.

Any Cop?: If you’ve read Batuman’s The Posessed, you’ll be on familiar ground: the bookishness, the Dostoevsky references, the travel-writer’s eye for idiosyncratic detail, the humour. If you’ve read Dostoevsky’s The Idiot you’ll be one step ahead of us in getting proper value for money out of Batuman’s version, as we’re pretty sure a lot of stuff has passed us by, but if, like us, you haven’t, you’ll still like it. One for book nerds, maybe, but as funny and engaging as her first book led us to expect.

 

Valerie O’Riordan

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