The Idiot: A Novel by Elif Batuman (New York: Penguin Press, 2017. 432 pp)
Elif Batuman holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Stanford University. She has been a writer in residence at Koҫ University in Istanbul, the Sidney Harmen Writer-in-Residence at Baruch College, and a fellow at the Cullman Center for Writers and Scholars at the New York Public Library. Her work has been published in n+1, and The New Yorker.
Freshman year represents the nexus between adulthood with its responsibility and adolescence with its singularity of the moment. For those of us seeing increasing space between the present and those college years, that brief era feels like the glory days.
These early moments outside the parent’s nest can feel so liberating. You can study whatever you want. You can go to parties, eat new foods, stay up all night. Nobody cares.
But post-college years also contribute a level of sobriety to those halcyon moments. For some, college and more specifically, Freshman year are fun but constrained. Others, though, likely want to keep some of their worst moments under wraps.
Batuman’s The Idiot conjures the feelings of the crossroads between youth and adulthood. Her voice enlivens a freshman at Harvard during the early years of the internet.
The story begins as its protagonist, Selin, meets her dorm roommates, unpacking for year 1. Socially awkward and unaware of the script for dorm room living, Selin begins her crash course on the college life. Unlike years past, this commencement includes something new: an email address. It is the mid-nineties after all.
“On the first day of college, I stood in line behind a folding table and eventually received an email address and temporary password. The ‘address’ had my last name in it—Karadaǧ, but all lowercase and without the Turkish ǧ, which was silent” (3).
The first half of the novel outlines that first semester in precise detail. The classes Selin takes. The topics she learns. The boys she meets.
One boy, Ivan, a senior studying mathematics catches her eyes, and a chain of emails ensues.
“Dear Selin, Ivan wrote.
Would you trade wine and cheese for vodka and pickles? Why does a Greek hero have to fight his fate? Are dice a lethal weapon? Is there any way to escape the trviality-dungeon of conversations? Why did you stop coming to math” (115)?
Fantasizing the Gaps in a Personality
A harbinger to the online relationships ubiquitous in this day and age, Selin builds a fantasy from this chain of electronic responses, to the point of infatuation.
As Selin fills in the gaps of Ivan’s personality with her imagination, she reorients her schedule to maximize interactions with Ivan, even though Ivan is finishing his schooling and is open about his relationship with his girlfriend. The infatuation becomes unhealthy.
“The phone rang. I would die if it wasn’t him. That thought, I knew, was itself lethal. In the time it took to pick up the phone and say hello, I thought again and again: What is man that thou art mindful of him. What is man that thou art mindful of him. What is man.
‘Selin,’ Ivan said. ‘Hey’” (198).
Even though it is evident that Ivan is leading her along, Selin’s childish longing fashions her as “the idiot” in this narrative. She’s a brilliant woman, but her freshman year represents that intersection between adolescence and adulthood. Engaging in this online relationship with Ivan illustrates the both/and qualities of those early college years. Selin can do whatever she wants. She also lacks the maturity to see that the relationship she wants isn’t the relationship she can have.
Batuman writes with clarity and humor and The Idiot entertains, even if it isn’t quite good enough to hit a year-end list.
Verdict: 3 out of 5