THE ID­IOT

The Monthly (Australia) - - NOTED - STEPHANIE BISHOP

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”.

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