Elif Batuman tweets under the handle BananaKarenina—a humorous nod toward a great Russian novelist’s depiction of a woman’s dangerous tangle with love. How fitting, then, that Batuman’s strikingly funny, precisely observed first novel, The Idiot, shares its title with the work of another great Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Here we have Selin, daughter of Turkish immigrants, arriving at Harvard in 1995. In short order, she obtains her first email address, two roommates, and a growing sense of her new environment. “You had to wait in a lot of lines and collect a lot of printed material,” Selin notes, “mostly instructions: how to respond to sexual harassment, report an eating disorder, register for student loans.” Selin’s assessments are dry, and much of the book’s initial humor comes from her bewilderment at what seems clear to everyone around her. As Selin struggles to figure out her place in the university’s micro-society, she develops a friendship with Svetlana, a Slovakian student, and begins an email correspondence with Ivan, a graduate student in her Russian language class. Studiously avoiding each other in real life, the two exchange missives back and forth.
Running parallel to the correspondence, the novel presents a text from the Russian class, “Nina in Siberia,” which tells the story of the eponymous young woman, foolishly in love with her own Ivan. Nina chases her almost-paramour to Siberia, obviously. The text is instructive, meant to introduce language learners to increasingly difficult and complex vocabulary, but the story is also thematically relevant. By the tale’s end, Nina realizes she does not need Ivan. She instead finds happiness in her own choices.
Selin, unfortunately, is slow to learn this lesson.
Come summer, she takes a job teaching English in the Hungarian countryside, mostly to be close to Ivan, who is visiting his family. The descriptions of Selin’s experiences in a foreign country are spot-on, from her fear that her various host families think she’s an idiot to an odd side trip with intensely friendly strangers. Batuman perfectly articulates Selin’s pleasure in a solitary meal after weeks of performative eating—a feeling anyone in a foreign country might recognize: “It felt amazing to eat anything without having to listen, nod, smile, or do anything with my eyebrows.”
Escaping from the Hungarian countryside, Selin reconnects with Ivan. Following what Selin hopes might be a romantic outing, Ivan abandons her at the side of a river, only to return hours later with an excuse about being chased by a rabid dog.
The novel can feel frustrating when Selin fails for so long to see what is strikingly clear to the reader—that Ivan, despite his supposed charms—is a major drip. But this denial of the obvious is, perhaps, a deliberate act on Batuman’s part. Desire and longing are frustrating, after all. We might know that we’re better than the attractive, grinning losers we’re drawn to—but to admit such a thing can feel dangerously egotistical. Self-actualization is hard, especially if your identity is tied into being the underdog. Selin recalls watching a popular Disney cartoon with her kindergarten class: “I realized for the first time that all the kids in the class, even the bullies, rooted for Dumbo, against Dumbo’s tormentors…How did they not know? They didn’t know. It was astounding, an astounding truth. Everyone thought they were Dumbo.”
By novel’s end, the real story is Selin’s growing understanding of herself as a writer, and how she might exist in the world. Her passivity and decisive observations are thrown into a new light: all along, she’s been gathering material. She’s watching, and saving information for later.
At its core, The Idiot is a bildungsroman, tracking a year in Selin’s young life. Though the plot is secondary, Batuman’s writing is always pleasurable to read, and compelling. Batuman’s heroine possesses the whip-smart, precise voice so many of us wish we had in our own youth. Selin blunders, yes, and fails, but who hasn’t? The Idiot reminds us that we are not alone; at various times, we’ve all been Selin, and Ivan, and even Dumbo.
Publication Date: March 14, 2017
Publisher: Penguin Press
Reviewed by Brett Beach