Elif Batuman Jonathan Cape; $32.99
The year is 1995, a time when it was easy to confuse an email address and a website. Selin, arriving at Harvard for the first day of college, is handed an ethernet cable. “What do we do with this,” she asks, “hang ourselves?” Her mock-tragic stance is indicative of Selin’s default position as a melodramatic cynic, perfectly suited to her forthcoming education in literary theory. The Idiot is Elif Batuman’s debut novel, and her second book.
Her first, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, was a highly acclaimed comic romp through Russian literature, with detours via the contemporary ivory tower. With The Idiot, Batuman (a staff writer for the New Yorker) broaches similar territory. A campus novel, the book traces Selin’s journey as she pursues her ill-fated education. She studies literature and linguistics, and takes a course in Russian where she meets – and falls for – Ivan, a secretive Hungarian who is studying mathematics. As part of their studies they read a serialised story that ends with the two main characters falling in love. “Why,” Selin asks, “did every story have to end with marriage? … For the mystery to be tied up so falsely, for everyone to be paired off and extinguished that way, felt like a terrible betrayal.”
This irritation forms the obstacle to what might otherwise be the inevitable trajectory of Batuman’s novel. The possibility of a happy ending between Selin and Ivan is frustrated by Selin’s cynicism, as much as by her social awkwardness and lack of self-awareness. Selin is unable to express her feelings openly, and instead channels her infatuation through the erotics of email, circa 1995: the trials of making a connection, followed by the novelty of immediacy. The consistent theme here is that of an adolescent crush that renders its bearer mute. Consequently, Batuman’s novel plods along, covering every banal detail of Selin’s campus life in weak pursuit of Ivan, but without taking her any closer to an understanding of Russian, linguistics or love.
And when we think Selin might finally break free by escaping for the summer, it turns out that Ivan has the uncanny ability to show up anywhere in the world. If Ivan is surprising and bewitching, Selin is the shy, trailing spoilsport. She won’t drink, she won’t dance, she doesn’t have any sexual curiosity beyond a brief and accidental encounter with the water jet from a showerhead, she doesn’t learn anything. As a result, the novel can feel like an extended exercise in refutation, guided by Selin’s reductive definition of narrative: “memory plus causality”.