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

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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

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