A young writer’s at­tach­ment to email


Elif Ba­tu­man seems stuck inside her own brilliant mind. The au­thor of a widely ac­claimed col­lec­tion of es­says ti­tled “The Pos­sessed: Ad­ven­tures With Rus­sian Books and the Peo­ple Who Read Them,” she has now pub­lished her first novel, “The Id­iot,” a semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal com­ing-of-age tale, a quirky, some­what dis­qui­et­ing med­i­ta­tion on dis­en­gage­ment.

Her pro­tag­o­nist, Selin, is an 18-year-old Turk­ish girl, the daugh­ter of sec­u­lar Turk­ish im­mi­grants who raised her in a gen­teel sub­urb of New Jer­sey. Begin­ning her first year at Har­vard, she is at­tempt­ing to nav­i­gate dif­fi­cult room­mates and fresh­man sem­i­nars and liv­ing on her own af­ter years spent un­der her mother’s strong guid­ance. But from the get-go, we sense that Selin is cut off from others. At a time in our lives when most of us are fall­ing into the wrong beds and risk­ing all sorts of hu­mil­i­a­tion and ex­po­sure to find some­one to be gen­uinely close to, she seems to be do­ing what­ever she can to run away from such en­tan­gle­ments.

The only thing Selin seems cer­tain about is her love of lan­guages and lit­er­a­ture, par­tic­u­larly the Rus­sian masters, and her grow­ing de­sire to be­come a writer. But writ­ers deal with emo­tion and vul­ner­a­bil­ity, and Selin seems in­tent upon keep­ing her emo­tional life strait­jack­eted be­hind a mask of con­trol. Ba­tu­man has spo­ken in in­ter­views about her at­trac­tion to sto­icism as a phi­los­o­phy for con­trol­ling the tur­bu­lence that life brings forth, and we can see that sto­icism vi­brat­ing through Selin, who is painfully awk­ward and self-con­scious.

The riski­est ven­ture Selin un­der­takes in­volves Ivan, a Hun­gar­ian grad­u­ate stu­dent in math­e­mat­ics. They be­gin an in­tense email re­la­tion­ship that al­lows them to feel freer to ex­press their fan­tasies and in­tel­lec­tual pre­oc­cu­pa­tions. The year is 1995, and email is a rel­a­tively new tool. Selin is at­tracted to its power, mar­veling at how “each mes­sage con­tained the one that had come be­fore, so your own words came back to you — all the words you threw out, they came back. It was like the story of your re­la­tions with others, the story of the in­ter­sec­tion of your life with other lives, was con­stantly be­ing recorded and up­dated, and you could check it at any time.”

Slowly, their mes­sages be­come more com­plex and per­sonal, and Selin finds her­self con­sumed by his notes and her re­sponses. She writes mov­ingly, “I felt dizzy from the sense of in­ti­macy and re­mote­ness. Ev­ery­thing he said came from so thor­oughly out­side my­self. I wouldn’t have been able to in­vent or guess any of it.” But when she walks with him af­ter class, they fum­ble awk­wardly to main­tain a con­ver­sa­tion. The magic ex­ists, it seems, only in their email ex­changes.

There are many ram­bling pages through­out this nar­ra­tive that have no ap­par­ent pur­pose. Empty dis­cus­sions with friends, ac­quain­tances and teach­ers seem in­serted for mere dis­trac­tion. Even when Selin once dares to visit the school psy­chol­o­gist for ad­vice about Ivan, the meet­ing is cut short by her own am­biva­lence. She is dis­turbed by the psy­chol­o­gist’s warn­ings about her per­va­sive eva­sive­ness and what it is mask­ing. Yearn­ing and sex­ual de­sire are sup­pressed by long runs along the Charles River, where she blasts her Walk­man, per­haps hop­ing to blot out her re­sis­tance.

Selin ad­mits that the end­less read­ing she has done the past year has given her lit­tle sus­te­nance or coun­sel as to how to live her life or find a place for her­self in it.

In what feels like the book’s cli­max, she vis­its Ivan’s fam­ily home and meets his par­ents and many sis­ters. They spend an un­usu­ally idyl­lic day ca­noe­ing on the Danube, and their con­ver­sa­tion fal­ters but has mo­ments of sus­tained in­tegrity. Af­ter Ivan shows her the room his mother has pre­pared for her, Selin takes out her jour­nal and records her thoughts. “I kept think­ing about the un­even qual­ity of time,” she writes, “the way it was al­most al­ways so empty, and then with no warn­ing came a few days that felt so dense and alive and real that it seemed in­dis­putable that that was what life was, that its real na­ture had fi­nally been re­vealed. But then time passed and un­think­ably grew dead again, and it turned out that the full­ness had been an aber­ra­tion.”

We feel Selin once again with­draw­ing into her­self, and we know by now that there is no way to stop her. Both Ba­tu­man and her al­ter ego seem not to have learned that there is no sanc­tu­ary — not in the out­side world and most cer­tainly not in the deep­est re­cesses of our minds. Both realms are fraught with un­seen dan­gers.

Ba­tu­man’s book is a some­what ag­i­tat­ing con­tem­pla­tion about what it feels like when you choose to take your­self out of the world and live inside your thoughts. In some ways, her novel mir­rors a grow­ing and up­set­ting trend among so many young peo­ple who seem to have given up on the pos­si­bil­ity of love and ju­bi­la­tion and eu­pho­ria be­fore they have even tasted it. Elaine Margolin is a writer and critic in New York.

THE ID­IOT By Elif Ba­tu­man Pen­guin. 423 pp. $27

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