The Idiot by Elif Batuman

When you heard -miş, you knew that you had been invoked in your absence—not just you but your hypocrisy, cowardice, and lack of generosity. Every time I heard it, I felt caught out.

Equal parts cerebral and droll, The Idiot relates the humdrum tribulations of a Turkish-American Harvard freshman. Set in the mid-nineties The Idiot provides an incredibly immersive reading experience that will not appeal to those looking for a more story-driven read. Selin’s narrative lacks momentum, her daily interactions, however peculiar, often serve no real plot function, adding little to her story. Yet, the author’s commitment to commit even the most prosaic of Selin’s thoughts or encounters adds a dimension of realism to her novel. The Idiot is very much characterised by seemingly endless digressions. Selin’s inner monologue often verges on being a stream-of-consciousness, as her mind flutters from thought to thought, often losing herself in asides or navel-gazing. While Selin is certainly naive, she does possess a certain awareness of her own limitations and shortcomings. The first half of the novel recounts her first year at university. Like many other disoriented heroines, aside from her vague aspirations of becoming a writer, Selin is unsure of what she wants to study, let alone who she is or wants to be. At Harvard, she takes classes on literature but seems dissatisfied by the way her professor teaches this subject (her criticism towards academia certainly resonated with me here) and seems to find her Russian class far more interesting. This is partly due to Ivan. He’s Hungarian, a few years older than her, and a mathematics student. Rather by chance, the two begin an email correspondence, one that is full of existential angst or studenty speculations about the meaning of x or y. Their virtual rapport doesn’t translate well in real life and when in the proximity of one another they often are unable to clearly express their ideas or feelings. Selin’s narrative is very much concerned with (mis)communication. Her mind grows increasingly preoccupied with language from its limitations to its potential.
In the latter half of the novel Selin, persuaded by Ivan, spends her summer teaching ESL classes in Hungary. Here she has to confront the possibility that she may have been idealising her and Ivan’s will-they-won’t-they relationship.
The dialogues within this novel ring incredibly true to life. They have this mumblecoreesque quality—awkward pauses, recursiveness, mishearing—that made those scenes come to life. The characters populating the narrative—Ivan, Svetlana, Selin’s roommates and the other ESL teachers—also came across as realistic. While some of their idiosyncrasies are certainly played up for laughs, that the author was able to capture in such minute detail the particular way in which they express themselves made them all the more vivid. At times Selin’s interactions with others do stray into absurdist territories but I found that more often than not I could definitely relate to her more eccentric conversations.
Selin’s narrative is certainly adroit. Interspersed throughout her narration are many literary references as well as detailed descriptions or accounts of whatever other subject she is discussing or thinking about. I found the conversations around West/East to be particularly entertaining. In spite of her supposed ‘idiocy’ Selin makes for a sharp-eyed narrator. Her insights into human behaviour and the academic world, as well as her exploration of the possibilities and failures of language, struck me as being both shrewd and funny.
While we do read of Selin’s innermost feelings Elif Batuman keeps us at a remove from her. In this way, she emphasises the alienation, loneliness, unease, Selin herself experiences throughout the novel. While the title does seem to be a nod at Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel, Selin has little in common with Prince Myshkin. If anything, Batuman seems to have a Flaubertian preoccupation with failure. In a manner not too dissimilar from Emma Bovary, Selin’s longing to be with Ivan seemed to be less a result of love than her desire to experience that which she has read in so many books.
Under different hands The Idiot could have been a dull affair. It is Batuman’s deadpan humor and naturalistic storytelling that make The Idiot into a worthwhile read. The novel’s latter half was slightly less enjoyable than the first but I was still for the most part absorbed by Selin’s voice. Her passivity may rub people the wrong way but I found the myriad of uncertainties plaguing her to make all the more believable. If you liked Susan Choi’s My Education you might want to give this a shot.


my rating: ★★★¾

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s