Freshman Fumblings, First Love: A Review of The Idiot by Elif Batuman

Within her first few days as a Harvard student, the painfully young, Turkish-American Selin is offered an Ethernet cable — “What do we do with this, hang ourselves?”

What follows is a playfully serious romp along the distances between words and meaning, language and communication, narrative and reality, and Selin and the life that happens around her.

Set in a time where e-mail is novel — that is, both new as well as a vessel for creating narratives, virtual literatures, between people — author Elif Batuman leads us through a largely plotless foray into Selin’s life as a student of Russian and philosophy of language. She does a few things: reads books, goes to class, tries to write, falls in love, amongst other trivialities. None of this ultimately lingers, or even matters, for the reader. The fine beauty of this novel is not in its actions or its chains and links of life-events. The Idiot is an exploration of craft, a subtle, gorgeous, meandering meditation on the very purpose of a novel, of an absolute narrative.

Selin is someone who grew up believing in the cores of stories; her mother always urges her to find the central meaning in whatever she comes across. “I thought that was the point of writing stories: to make up a chain of events that would somehow account for a certain mood — for how it came about and for what it led to,” she ponders. She is a gentle, off-kilter girl, fiercely intelligent and just as fiercely awkward. Language baffles her: Selin pokes and prods at the concept of words, lost in a liminal limbo between speaking them and meaning them. It doesn’t help when she finds herself in love with Ivan, someone she can only connect with through words on a screen, their thoughts and dreams transmitted through a computer, rather than physically spoken between them.

Selin is unable to reconcile these two co-existing scenarios — the rich online narrative with Ivan, and the daily realities of social fumbles and mundane misunderstandings. She is constantly searching for a core, a meaning, trying to find her role within the plot of her own life and to stop straying from the script.

With her tongue-in-cheek title for our heroine, borrowed from Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Batuman challenges the young and human penchant for foolishly losing ourselves in expectation, all in the hopes of shaping our lives as something comprehensively meaningful. At first glance, it seems Batuman is poking fun at our protagonist’s naiveté. But an “idiot”, upon closer inspection, is a bizarrely fond endearment. It originally described someone who didn’t serve in public life (from the Greek idios, pertaining to the self), someone who was a private person, who belonged wholly to themselves. And this is true. In Selin, we somehow find every adolescent, confidently adrift in their attempts to create and recreate their identities, to begin to learn to belong to themselves. One is reminded of other bildungsromans — the recent film Lady Bird directed by Greta Gerwig, or even Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, a darker tale of a young woman trying to save the person she is in the process of becoming.

Critics may complain that nothing really happens in this novel. It’s a bizarre dream, a stream of consciousness, flatline, rambling, pointless — but this precisely is the point. Batuman is subtly pushing against the very convention of narrative and what it should and shouldn’t be. Does it always have a point? Do the collections of fragments, dialogues, banal moments and daily life’s sundries, all add up in neat, nested plotlines as if life was just one great big juicy Pride & Prejudice? Selin wants a story, that is clear. But can she, or any of us, ever really get it?

Batuman’s book is a quiet rebellion, that of form, of literary convention, of trying to suppress the spontaneity and unevenness of growing up and being alive by boxing it into a well-connected jigsaw plot. As an undergraduate who sometimes writes, sometimes falls in love, sometimes reads a dictionary for fun, this book, to me, is an immense comfort. And yet, it is also a gentle reminder to unplaster myself from the wall I have flowered on, to accept the jaggedness of life and the idea of narrative, whether it is mine or a fiction on a page or a screen.


Painting by Nigel Van Wieck, “Q Train”