The title of Elif Batuman’s new novel is a direct nod to Dostoyevsky, but it’s also a sly nudge to the narrator, Selin; or, more accurately, Selin’s curiously detached perception of herself. “The Idiot” follows her as the American teenage daughter of Turkish immigrants making her way through college. Set in 1995, the story winds its way down the path of a year, during which she takes Russian classes, falls in love, decides to travel to another country to impress a boy and agonizes over every email she sends and receives.
“The Idiot” has no true beginning and no real end; rather, it is a collection of the moments and panics and discoveries and revelations and mundane evenings and mornings spent covering up last night’s heartbreak that make up a freshman’s year. Throughout her first year at Harvard, Selin finds herself obsessed with language and with Ivan, a boy in one of her classes; but she cannot speak to him, well, in person. The two find their intellectual sparks are at their hottest when they’re emailing back and forth through all hours of the night, revealing intensely personal thoughts and pushing each other to always be more precise, always be more probing, always look for the profound.
The book itself feels profound (though Selin would deny that with all of her might) despite it’s often whimsical, self-deprecatingly tangential nature, because Selin has no qualms about sharing any of her thoughts, as cringeworthy or absurd or unremarkable as she might think them. A quiet presence in most of her classes, relationships and life, Selin sometimes forgets that, though she is constantly paying attention to what’s in her own head, other people do notice her, and take note. Her philosophizing is compelling and clever and open and droll and somehow never pretentious, and the fact that we get to be in her head with her is a gift.
“The Idiot” captures that which we don’t even like to admit to ourselves, much less to other people. How we derive meaning, ridiculously, from example stories in our textbooks, applying them to our own lives against all reason. How we spend hours in universities analyzing the meanings of specific passages, right down to the phrases, words and punctuation, yet make fun of ourselves and each other when we do the same thing with messages from a potential romantic partner. How we all sometimes think of ourselves as Dumbo or Cinderella, despite all evidence that points to the fact that sometimes we are the mean kids at the circus or the wicked stepsisters. How thoughts sprawling over a handwritten page can be pulled into a tightly written email, full of sharp language and tantalizingly unclear threads and a timestamp that makes you wonder if they’re also up at 3:00 a.m., thinking about you.
How stupid it feels when you’re constantly awed by the beauty of someone’s intellect but scared shitless at the thought of being with them in person.
“The Idiot” has one of the most absurdly simple endings I’ve ever read, somehow managing to feel abrupt and seamless at the same time. The book feels almost too plain and too long to be called breathtaking; Selin would laugh at me were I to say that’s what it is. But I think she’d also get it.