Lit Guide: The Idiot, by Elif Batuman
If you use Instagram, seek out lifestyle blogs, or aggressively model your sense of style after Greta Gerwig, you’ve likely seen this book. The 400-something page, millennial-pink tome is featured in thousands of square-cropped images zooming through your phone feed, and New Yorker staff writer Elif Batuman is to blame.
To be clear, The Idiot is delightful. Endlessly beguiled by the possibilities and shortcomings of language, Batuman explores several banal philosophical crises through the semi-autobiographical protagonist, Selin. A daughter of Turkish immigrants, Selin is about to start her first year at Harvard University; the novel ponders the social significance of new technologies (email), discusses the events of mid-90s college life, and contemplates the structural equivalences between a tissue box and a book: “Both consisted of slips of white paper in a cardboard case; yet—and this was ironic—there was very little functional equivalence, especially if the book wasn’t yours.” The plot gains speed around the 100-page mark, where a budding romance between Selin and Ivan, a Hungarian upperclassman she meets in Intro to Russian, blossoms in sporadic email correspondence.
I must admit—I struggled through the first fifty pages of this book. Though I was impressed by Batuman’s deadpan, observational humor, I fundamentally disagreed with what the book set out to complete. At its core, The Idiot is a bildungsroman novel—another coming-of-age story complete with unrequited love, international travel, and the increasing esotericism of adulthood. However, it is a pleasure to watch Batuman render the novel’s central drama—a young woman using words to find her way—with the wit and sensitivity of someone who successfully emerged on the other side. She is fascinated with linguistic puzzles, tempering her protagonist’s intellectual vertigo with maturity and dead-on intuition. When one professor assigns Selin the French novel Against Nature, she hopes the story will shed light on “someone who viewed things the way I did—someone trying to live a life unmarred by laziness cowardice, and conformity.” But “I was wrong,” she discovers. “It was more a book about interior decoration.
By the end of the novel, I was so enamored of Batuman that I tracked down (almost) everything she has written—it was a lot. She received a PhD in comparative (mostly Russian) literature from Stanford University and has written for The Nation, n+1, and Harper’s Magazine. I have ordered her other book, The Possessed, and plan to review it.
And, if you are curious, Batuman’s Twitter bio addresses the title appropriation: “Like Dostoevsky, I wrote books called THE IDIOT and THE POSSESSED. Mine are shorter.”