College life, love and email in the 1990s
A Turkish-American teenager navigates the obstacles of adulthood in this charming coming-of-age tale. Lucy Scholes reports
It is 1995, and Selin Karadag – a gangly 18-year-old Turkish-American from New Jersey with huge feet – is starting her first year at Harvard. Email – or, as Selin’s aunt (“who married a computer scientist”) puts it, “e, mails” (“She emphasised the ‘e’ and paused before ‘mail’”) – is a brave new world of interconnectivity.
It’s the medium via which our heroine is going to fall in love – with a tall Hungarian maths major named Ivan whom she meets in Russian class – not that Selin knows this yet, she still has to get to grips with the basics.
“What do we do with this, hang ourselves?” she asks when she’s handed an Ethernet cable on her first day at college.
Not quite “wide-eyed” – I pictured her with a furrowed brow, eyes slightly narrowed – she’s inquisitive, confused and often disappointed; clever, for sure, but far from clued-up.
Poor awkward, naive Selin; she’s eager to pursue the aesthetic life, but meets disenchantment at every turn.
“I thought maybe Against Nature would be a book about someone who viewed things the way I did – someone trying to live a life unmarred by laziness, cowardice, and conformity,” she says of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s famous novel. “I was wrong; it was more a book about interior decoration.”
The Idiot excels at such deadpan smackdowns. Elif Batuman – a staff writer at The New Yorker, and the author of the excellent bibliomemoir, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them – ushers her young fictional alter ego not unknowingly through the minefield that is love and life as a grown-up.
“The hits never stopped coming in adult life,” Selin soon realises – the skeleton of the narrative drawn from Batuman’s own undergraduate experience.
Anyone who’s read The Possessed will be familiar with certain details of Selin’s story: her infatuation with Ivan, her summer abroad teaching English in the Hungarian countryside, even her mother’s belief that “every story had a central meaning. You could get at that meaning, or you could miss it completely.”
Selin is drawn to the study of linguistics because she’s searching for “the relationship between language and the world,” but, of course, it’s not that straightforward.
Real life, Selin comes to realise, isn’t like fiction – “I wanted to know how it was going to turn out, like flipping ahead in a book,” she says of her burgeoning email romance.
“I didn’t even know what kind of story it was, or what kind of role I was supposed to be playing.”
Seeing the world through Selin’s eyes is to see it anew; her experiences and interactions in the supposedly familiar urban United States rendered just as alien as those in far-flung rural Europe.
Shopping for a winter coat in a Boston department store, she stands in front of a mirror trying to work out if the garment she’s picked out suits her.
“It wasn’t clear to me what good this did,” she admits, “since I had read in a scientific study that the majority of girls and young women didn’t perceive themselves accurately when they looked in the mirror.”
Giving up, she buys a “shapeless ankle-length black coat that could cover anything” – “Darling,” Selin’s friend Svetlana’s mother “rasped” on first setting eyes on Selin wearing it, “don’t you have another coat?”
Oblivious to some things, her powers of description can be uniquely and delightfully perceptive: a “heap of thermal underwear” that resembles “a pile of souls torn from their bodies”; champagne bottles in a refrigerator that “lay on their bellies like black dogs with wire muzzles”; a croissant that’s “crisp and soft and flaky at the same time. Just biting it made you feel cared for.” A few years back, Batuman railed against the precision and control taught on creative writing courses, advocating instead for the novel as a form that should contain “all the irrelevant garbage” of life.
She absolutely practices what she preaches in this witty, smart and endlessly-entertaining coming-of-age story; admittedly there’s not a whole lot of plot, but this doesn’t make the novel any less charming.
Plus, sentence-by-sentence there’s simply far too much to take pleasure in for anyone to feel short-changed.
Lucy Scholes is a regular contributor to The Review.
The Idiot Elif Batuman Jonathan Cape, Dh57