On Elif Batuman’s The Idiot

Elif Batuman’s absorbing and intellectually riveting The Idiot transports us back to the not-so-long-ago world of 1995. Times are certainly different. Nair is popular, all the cool kids walk around with Discmans, and email is just becoming a thing. America feels less cynical and self-obsessed. I know, I know. It’s been a while, but The Idiot makes us remember (and long for) those days.

For Selin, the eighteen-year-old Turkish-American, at the heart of Batuman’s novel, the world is full of possibilities. She’s a recent high school graduate, and it’s time for her to enroll in college. So, she chooses Harvard. She’s unsure exactly what she wants for her future, but she thinks that college will help guide her. When registering for her classes, she, unsurprisingly, finds herself interested in many of the options. Like I said, she’s a hopeful protagonist. Eventually, she signs up for an introductory course to Russian, an English course “about the nineteenth-century novel and the city in Russia, England, and France,” a studio art class called “Constructed Worlds,” and Linguistics 101. She even auditions for the college orchestra.

It doesn’t take long for Selin to become consumed by the arts. She loves language. She loves words. Batuman gives Selin such a fun, but wise, voice that it’s hard not to root for our protagonist. Selin, when speaking with a professor about her appreciation for words, says, “They don’t bore me at all.” Then, she sneezes “five times.” Batuman shows us that, yes, Selin is brilliant, but she’s also unguarded and lives her life as a free spirit. It’s this kind of meticulously layered intricacy that help The Idiot maintain its level of genius.

Since she enjoys words so much, it’s no surprise that Selin loves the stories that people create and tell. Her trouble, though, is that she struggles with only being a writer in spirit when she really wants (and needs) to be a writer in practice. Instead of offering an easy solution, Batuman slowly allows us to witness Selin’s understanding of language and its power. This unraveling comes via Ivan, an older Hungarian math student and Selin’s new email (maybe?) boyfriend.

Ivan, himself, isn’t much of a character. In fact, I read him as if he’s more of an extended symbol than a person. However one chooses to read him is inconsequential because The Idiot is totally Selin’s story. Ivan’s rambling emails—truly, in one he asks her, “Would you trade wine and cheese for vodka and pickles? Why does a Greek hero have to fight his fate? Are dice a lethal weapon? Is there any way to escape the triviality-dungeon of conversations? Why did you stop coming to math?”—serve as an agency that causes Selin to act.

By reading her responses to him—her own words, her own phrases—Selin sees the failures in her still budding life. She remarks:

“I was overcome by the sense of how much more there was in his life than in mine, by the things to do and distances to travel, while I never had done anything or gone anywhere, and never would. All I had ever done was visit my parents all the time—first one parent and then the other, with no sign of it ever stopping. Worse yet, I knew I had no one to blame but myself. If my mother told me not to do something, I didn’t do it. Everyone’s mother told them not to do things, but I was the only one who listened.”

This realization is when The Idiot transforms itself from being a good bildungsroman into a rather masterful meditation on youthfulness and self-awareness. Selin emerges into someone who, although she might not succeed, still understands what she needs to do to fulfill her current interests.

Eventually, Selin’s friend Svetlana, a Serbian classmate, convinces Selin to travel with her to Paris, as a means for teach English to students in Hungary and Turkey. Here, Selin grows and sees the realities of the adult world she is getting closer to fully entering.

In many ways, Selin is a quintessential youngster—full of hopes, dreads, and all of those things that make up the in between. When she finally puts her love of language into action, she gets a story publication. She goes to a reception to celebrate her publication, but when she sees the journal, she’s horrified. She says, “My story was printed right after the one about the guy whose head turned into a butt,” and she continues, “After two pages you came to a poem about a waterfall that turned out to be about bulimia.” Batuman so masterfully delivers on these scenes that we feel the emotions alongside the endearing Selin.

Much will be written about how funny The Idiot is, and it certainly is a funny book. However, this isn’t a light, comedic novel. Batuman is more focused on eliciting awkward giggles than belly laughs. On Selin’s first day of college, while standing in line to receive her email address and password, she receives an Ethernet cable. She asks, “What do we do with this, hang ourselves?” The worker replies, “You plug it into the wall.” It’s funny, but it’s dry—so, so dry. In another section, when discussing paradox in film, Selin interrupts the conversation, abruptly asking, “What about portraits?” She continues, “In a portrait you just see someone’s head, without their body. But people don’t assume that the person in the portrait has been decapitated.”

Batuman’s The Idiot is the kind of book that rambles for too long in certain sections, and it even feels empty on a few occasions. Somehow, though, it only adds to the authenticity of Selin’s story. Aren’t all of our lives full of things we wish we could cut out? The Idiot feels real. Elif Batuman, in her debut, has given us a great novel about what it means to just simply be.
Bradley Sides is a writer and English instructor. He is a frequent contributor at Electric Literature. His works also appears at Fiction Southeast, Literary Orphans, Rose Red Review, The Rumpus, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. He lives in Florence, Alabama, with his wife.