Sharp, funny re­flec­tions on a not-quite-adult life

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Ian Maleney

The Id­iot By Elif Ba­tu­man Jonathan Cape, £16.99

The first year of univer­sity is a time of in­tense and nec­es­sary ed­u­ca­tion in many as­pects of life. New stu­dents are step­ping into their adult shoes, many for the first time. One has to fig­ure out what it means to be wear­ing adult shoes – how do they fit? Where do they pinch? Where can you go in them? The feel­ing is thrilling and ter­ri­fy­ing at the same time. It is of­ten bor­ing, too, with long stretches of time filled nei­ther with the play of a child nor the work of a real adult. There’s a lot to think about, be­cause al­most ev­ery­thing is new and strange and un­de­cided. One might keep odd hours.

Selin, the first-year Har­vard stu­dent who nar­rates The Id­iot, Elif Ba­tu­man’s de­but novel, lives much of her life in the “the weird left­over hours that no­body else wanted”. She sleeps lit­tle, reads a lot. She was born in New Jersey to Turk­ish par­ents. She en­ters univer­sity just as the in­ter­net is dawn­ing: “I didn’t know what email was un­til I got to col­lege,” she says. At Har­vard she stud­ies lin­guis­tics, takes Rus­sian for be­gin­ners, and dab­bles in con­cep­tual art through a class called Con­structed Worlds. Her best friends are Svet­lana, an im­mensely wealthy girl from Yu­goslavia, and Ralph, whom she first met on a “pro­gram for high school ju­niors where you spent five weeks in a house in New Jersey study­ing the in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary his­tory of the North­ern Euro­pean Re­nais­sance”. They are all young, in­tel­li­gent, charm­ing, in­quis­i­tive, dis­cur­sive, rarely ar­gu­men­ta­tive.

Selin is pri­mar­ily a lin­guis­tics stu­dent, and she thinks reg­u­larly about the “Sapir-Whorf hy­poth­e­sis, which said that the lan­guage you spoke af­fected how you pro­cessed re­al­ity”. The novel’s plot is ba­si­cally a se­ries of sit­u­a­tions in which Selin has to learn to speak dif­fer­ent lan­guages and di­alects in or­der to process dif­fer­ent re­al­i­ties. Selin speaks one way with her Turk­ish mother, and an­other with her room-mates or her pro­fes­sors. There’s a seem­ingly un­bridge­able gap be­tween the way she writes late-night emails to Ivan, an older stu­dent who be­comes some­thing like a love in­ter­est, and the way she speaks to him in per­son.

Ba­tu­man re­tains her char­ac­ter’s en­thu­si­asm for the am­bigu­ous and star­tling power of lan­guage

Lin­guis­tic in­no­cence

Selin’s lin­guis­tic in­no­cence, or id­iocy, is at the root of most of her frustrations, but also her mo­ments of hap­pi­ness. “Some­thing ba­sic about lan­guage had started to es­cape me,” she says half­way through the book. “I thought I could fix it by tak­ing classes.” But you can­not learn ev­ery­thing in school.

Selin is self-aware enough to know that her naivety and open­ness to con­fu­sion is quite dif­fer­ent from that dis­played by the peo­ple to whom she teaches English as a se­cond lan­guage. As a priv­i­leged Har­vard stu­dent, even as a se­cond-gen­er­a­tion im­mi­grant, she can af­ford to aes­theti­cise her own nar­ra­tive jour­ney through this kind of lin­guis­tic fog. She has the time and space to play with it. For the Mex­i­can labour­ers and Hun­gar­ian teenagers she tutors, there is some­thing quite dif­fer­ent, and al­to­gether more prac­ti­cal, at stake in their strug­gle with a new lan­guage.

Comedic phras­ing

Ba­tu­man has an in­cred­i­bly well- tuned sense of comedic phras­ing. Even taken out of con­text, so many of her one-lin­ers re­main ter­rif­i­cally funny. “I had a slab of Ger­man choco­late cake the size of a child’s tomb­stone.” “Cer­tainly there was no short­age of Ethans.” “Girl Scouts had got­ten into the cafe­te­ria. I hadn’t seen a child in months.” These lines are gnomic but sharp at the same time, ab­surd and yet com­pletely ac­cu­rate and factual. It’s a style of hu­mour that Selin also recog­nises and, like any good stu­dent of lit­er­a­ture and lan­guage, she is able to an­a­lyse and ar­tic­u­late it. “If you pointed out the ab­nor­mal­ity – if you could just state it fac­tu­ally – peo­ple in the real world would rec­og­nize it and laugh,” she says.

This kind of meta-tex­tual play­ful­ness is not ex­actly rare in The Id­iot, but its suc­cess does serve to high­light the im­pres­sive level of con­trol Ba­tu­man has over her writ­ing. The Id­iot is funny and light, but also con­sis­tently per­cep­tive, ad­ven­tur­ous and in­tri­cate. Ba­tu­man re­tains her char­ac­ter’s en­thu­si­asm for the am­bigu­ous and star­tling power of lan­guage, and com­bines that en­thu­si­asm with a pa­tient and learned dis­ci­pline. Her un­der­stand­ing – of words, of peo­ple – helps to frame com­plex­ity as rich­ness in a way that is pleas­ingly ap­proach­able or, to bor­row Selin’s word, gen­er­ous. The Id­iot is a book of ideas that sac­ri­fices noth­ing of its charm for the sake of their pre­sen­ta­tion. This is not so much bal­ance as grace.

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