The Idiot by Elif Batuman

The Idiot (Penguin Press, 423 pages) is a debut novel by a young writer who promises to do big things in the future. Apparently the title, borrowed from Dostoevsky, refers to the main character and narrator of the story, Selin Karadag (the g is silent), who is a young woman from New Jersey of Turkish background (like the author herself). Far from being an idiot, Selin—in this novel prominently featuring words and languages—is highly intelligent. At age eighteen, as she enters Harvard University, she already speaks English and Turkish fluently, has a passable knowledge of Spanish. Over the course of the book she studies, as well, Russian and Hungarian. Her quest for new words is insatiable.

Furthermore, by the end of the action she appears to have read through practically the whole canon of Western literature. Among the multitude of books she is mentioned to be reading or have read are Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, Madame Bovary. Late in the novel she casually picks up the monumental, and very dense Magic Mountain and goes at it in her spare time. Almost as if you could tackle Thomas Mann’s difficult text with an apple in one hand and a Scotch in the other.

This is a tale of adolescence and a kind of Bildungsroman. It features one year (age 18-19) in the life of a future writer. Early on Selin contemplates writing a short story—featuring a courtyard with “a pink hotel, Albinoni, ashes, and being unable to leave.” That same paragraph continues,

“I was an American teenager, the world’s least interesting and dignified kind of person . . . . In my story, the characters would be stuck there for a long time, for a real, legitimate reason—like a sickness. The hotel would be somewhere far away, like Japan. The hotel management would be sorry that Albinoni’s Adagio was piped into the halls and lobby for such a long time, but it would be a deep-rooted technical problem and difficult to fix.”

So one thing this novel is about is writing fiction, learning to write. Selin ends up casually entering one of her stories in a campus competition and wins. The third-place winner has written the tale of “a woman who had night sweats and then found out her grandmother had been in the Holocaust.” The second-place winner told the story of “a man who woke up one morning to find that his head had been replaced by a gigantic butt . . . . Why were we all so bad at writing stories? When would we get better?” Why indeed? Ah, that is the question. The Great American Short-Story Boondoggle. More on this later.

The Idiot turns out to be a strange sort of modern-day epistolary novel, since the main plot features an e-mail exchange between Selin and a gangling and rather screwed-up Hungarian grad student, Ivan. She meets him in Russian class, but for practically the whole school year they communicate not face to face, but by e-mail. In fact, these characters are a bit ahead of their time. The action of the book is set twenty years ago, before young people began communicating through gadgets rather than face to face.

“Ivan and I had settled into a rhythm: he would take a week to write to me, and then I would force myself to wait a week before writing back. This already felt like a huge waste of time. Then eight days went by and he didn’t write, and then it was ten days, and I was sure he was never going to write me again, and I was in despair. Finally he sent a message. The subject line said crazy, which I found encouraging because that was how I felt. But when I opened the e-mail, it was only one line: My thesis is due in two weeks—I will write to you then.”

Unfortunately for the reader, Ivan, who, though a hater of words, is afflicted with the disease of logorrhea, tends to write much longer e-mails. Here is an example.

“You’re right about the poet—and how right you are. Poets are liars, obsessed with cereal. They try to hammer the atom back to Fruit Loops, life back to paradise, and love back to nonexistent simplicity. You’re right—they shouldn’t do that. It isn’t possible, and they shouldn’t pretend.”

Such is the love story at the center of the plot. Nothing much happens in the book, which consists of reams of episodes strung together. Selin lives out her new life on the Harvard campus, reads, studies, volunteers to teach ESL and math, eats at the school cafeteria, goes out running, chats with her friend Svetlana—from Serbia and one of the liveliest secondary characters in a book teeming with secondary characters. At the end of the school year she goes to Hungary to teach English in Hungarian villages, mainly because Ivan is Hungarian and he will be in his native country over the summer. The plot progresses much as it has in the Harvard episodes. Selin in Hungary meets a wide variety of characters, tries to teach English, feels like a fish out of water, agonizes over her love for Ivan.

Reading The Idiot is something like being on the Tower of Babel, amidst a babble of languages from all over the world—among students mentioned at Harvard are Romanians, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Serbs, etc., etc., etc. On page 228 the reader is astonished to come upon Bill and Robin, native-born Americans. Given the people Selin associates with at Harvard, it appears that such persons are in short supply. She does have a black American roommate Angela (along with her Korean/American roommate Hannah), and a friend Ralph, but Angela is barely featured in the novel’s scenes, and Ralph is a nerd.

“Hungary felt increasingly like reading War and Peace: new characters came up every five minutes, with their unusual names and distinctive locutions.” Well yes, but Tolstoy’s characters, even secondary characters, even his dog and horse characters, are always perfectly rounded. In Elif Batuman’s novel pedestrian, undeveloped characters are the norm.

A cloud of ennui hangs over the action. Here is a line that sums up much of what goes on in the book: “We spent the next two hours doing the kinds of pointless things we always did.” Luckily, the novel has a sense of humor, and that helps leaven the pointlessness. But not enough.

Mentioned once is Selin’s high school friend, Hema, whose name, read as Cyrillic, means “Ain’t got nary” in Ukrainian. Sometimes you kind of wish you could take a break from this amalgam of languages and nationalities and drop in, say, on a student at the University of Alabama named Mary Beth Jones, who has never heard of the great writers whom Selin has read, who would be baffled by almost everything Selin discusses, including the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and who is interested, largely, in boyfriends and business administration.

As for the foreign students at Harvard, the book is set in 1995-1996, and I find myself wondering where the money came from to send Serbs, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians abroad to study. After all, the early nineties—with the collapse of the Soviet Empire—were economically chaotic all over Eastern Europe, but the book shows little sign of the chaos—even in the parts set in Hungary.

On and on goes the epistolary passionless “romance,” between Selin and Ivan, neither of whom have any interest in sex. Adding to the surrealistic nature of that relationship is the fact that it is modeled on the story in a Russian reader, “Nina in Siberia,” which the two are assigned in their Russian class. At one point Selin mentions that “I had the uncanny sensation that this conversation had been prefigured by the story of Nina: Nina who had pretended to study the locomotion of reindeer, and whom physics kept pushing east.”

The Ivan of the Russian reader ends up marrying someone else, which is probably what Selin’s Hungarian Ivan will end up doing as well. In class, while the two students are getting practice in spoken Russian by playing out scenes from the reader, Ivan blurts out, “I have a wife. And it’s not you.” The two main characters of The Idiot spend the whole book dancing around one another like two timid boxers, each afraid not only of fists, but even of a clinch.

By midway in the book the reader is looking for ways to escape from The Tower. At the end of Part One Selin appears to have finally broken off the weird epistolary romance, and the reader heaves a sigh of relief. But alas, early into Part Two Hungarian Ivan steps right back into the book, and we have to put up with him all the way through.

Various ancillary characters—a Harvard psychiatrist, Selin’s friends, Ivan’s friends—express their negative opinions about the way Ivan strings Selin along. He has another semi-girlfriend, a fact he does not conceal from Selin. “I have a girlfriend whom I only sometimes love. I do think about you a lot. My love for you is for the person writing your letters.” Everything with Ivan is “semi,” not fully realized. But then, in maintaining the e-mail correspondence, Selin herself, dubious of passion and carnality, is equally at fault.

The Idiot is a love story about first love (at least Selin’s first love), but it is a passionless love between two confused lovers. Selin is certainly no idiot; on the contrary. But she is meek, unsure of herself, bogged down in adolescence, terrified of her sexuality. The biggest problem with the book is that precious few readers will want to journey through four hundred pages of Selin’s insipid life. Given the episodic nature of events, the piling up of nonessential scenes, the book would be better, say, at three hundred pages, not four hundred. A plethora of scenes could be omitted. A good place to begin the cuts would be with scenes involving Selin’s casual acquaintance Ralph, whose presence in the book serves little purpose.

The novel has a certain quirkiness to its action, almost a kind of surrealism, as if we are in some kind of absurdist play. Here are sample passages:

“The French director had died tragically, by falling off a barstool. ‘They say it might have been a suicide,’ Svetlana said.”

“At one point she laughed so violently that she dislocated her jaw. You could see it was something that happened to her regularly. She was in a lot of pain, but we couldn’t tell at first because her jaw was stuck in a laughing position.”

“Saint Istvan’s right hand was in a box somewhere. The Chain Bridge had been reconstructed after each world war. The sculptor of the lion statue was said to have drowned himself out of shame because the lions didn’t have tongues—though others said that if you looked closely in their mouths, you could see the tongues right there.”

“He had just started a new job in an office run by his father, having been fired from his previous position for biting a man’s ear.”

Funny stuff. Thank God for the humor in the novel, its only saving grace. Read the whole book and you learn about all kinds of words in all world languages. “The words for eggplant, bean, chickpea, and sour cherry were the same in Serbo-Croatian as in Turkish.” “Turkish, he said, was the only language that could express that there was indeed not much difference between a latrine and Ivan’s paternal aunt. It was full of Hungarian words, like for handcuffs and beard.” “The street looked empty but was full of words: ‘puddle,’ ‘mud,’ ‘bottle,’ ‘chocolate wrapper,’ ‘gum,’ ‘gum wrapper.’” In Hungarian the words for hello and goodbye are the same. So that the Beatles song in Hungarian would go like this: “Hello, hello, hello, I don’t know why you say hello, I say hello.”

The epigraph to The Idiot should be a famous line from the Russian poet, Tyutchev: “Any word when uttered is a lie.” Words are something of a snare, especially for the Hungarian friend Ivan, who prefers largely abstractions, being of the opinion that nothing concrete can really be pinned down and words are not to be trusted. In the long e-mail correspondence between Selin and Ivan he frequently rails against words, while Selin, the budding writer loves words. At one point he asks, “Is there a way to escape the triviality-dungeon of conversations?” Well, he has found that way in his relationship with Selin. We are halfway through the book before they have anything resembling a real conversation, and even then it is one-sided. Ivan blathers on and Selin, trapped in her prison of timidity, can’t think of anything to say.

In what could be the climax of the novel, only a few pages before the end, the long-awaited real conversation between the two central characters finally arrives. Since both characters are reluctant to converse, however, they don’t really get anywhere again here. The reader feels like grabbing and shaking the both of them. At the end of the book Selin herself has lost her love of words:

“When I got back to school in the fall, I changed my major from linguistics and didn’t take any more classes in the philosophy of language. They had let me down. I hadn’t learned what I had wanted to about how language worked. I hadn’t learned anything at all.”

Although Elif Batuman has published only two books, both very recently, she has already made it big time in the Eastern Literary Establishment. Many American writers would give their right writing hand to be where she already is. Ms. Batuman has a literary agent in the most prestigious agency in New York. She has hotshot editors on high, and her books are reviewed at the highest levels: The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, etc. No matter how good or bad her next novel is, it will without doubt be favorably reviewed at the same high levels. That’s the way the game works, after you are accepted into the in crowd.

So what Ms. Batuman needs to do at this point is stop listening to the hotshot establishment agents and editors and write something that is real literature. Unlike so many modern American writers, those who have come out of creative writing programs, she has taken the time to read the great writers; she knows what literature is. For her first novel I can imagine the agent telling her, “Stick to the timeworn pattern, don’t get far away from realism, describe the everyday life of a girl who resembles yourself. Write ‘domestic literary fiction,’ for this is what sells in America. Don’t get too cute in your first published work. Nobody needs too much creativity.” So she wrote a semi-autobiographical novel about her days at Harvard. Okay, she has listened to that spiel once, but now that she is in with the in crowd, she can write whatever she likes. She should.

Elif Batuman is aware of the vast wasteland that is the creative writing industry in the U.S. How do I know? Because in her nonfiction work, The Possessed (something of a companion work to The Idiot), she expresses strong opinions about that puerile industry. Just beginning her creative life, she drops in on a writing workshop on Cape Cod, where the lead guru tells her, “If you want to be an academic, go to graduate school; if you want to be a writer come here.” The implication is that you need not even read and discuss the great writers of the past. Instead you sit around reading and critiquing short stories by pedestrian writers who have read, largely, other pedestrian writers.

Creative writing instructors, even those who have won awards, are often hopelessly boring, tedious and uninspired writers themselves, perpetuating the gruesome genre of “domestic literary realism.” How did they win the awards? Because the prizes are given out by other hopelessly mind-numbing writer/judges who write the same crap.

“For many years, I gave little thought to the choice I had made between creative writing and literary criticism. In 2006, n + I magazine asked me to write about the state of the American short story, using the Best American Short Stories anthologies of 2004 and 2005 as data. Only then, as I turned the pages in the name of science, did I find myself remembering the emptiness I had felt on that rainy day on Cape Cod” (The Possessed).

“I remembered then the puritanical culture of creative writing, embodied by colonies and workshops and the ideal of ‘craft’…. I thought it was the dictate of craft that had pared many of the Best American stories to a nearly unreadable core of brisk verbs and vivid nouns.”

This critique of the modern American short story goes on for two more pages and concludes as follows: “Contemporary short stories contain virtually no reference to any interesting work being done in the field over the past twenty, fifty, or hundred years; instead, middle-class women keep struggling with kleptomania, deviant siblings keep going in and out of institutions, people continue to be upset by power outages and natural disasters, and rueful writerly types go on hesitating about things.” Domestic literary realism. Urggh.

This revelation—that the “best stories” written in the U.S. in 2004 and 2005 (and, alas, any other recent year) are bad stories—-should open the eyes of the writing world. But given that the whole writing industry and publishing enterprise prefers to proceed with eyes shut, nothing essentially will be changed. The New Yorker, at least half the time, is publishing this same dreck. So are all the most prestigious literary magazines.

It is all, after all, about money, and literary trash sells in American. To the extent that anybody reads literature anymore, the realistic trash is what they read. Writers writing literary trash get published, even win awards. In creative writing programs all over the U.S. these writers teach their students to value the same twaddle. After which the students graduate, get positions as creative writing instructors, and perpetuate the problem. The best solution would be to abolish all creative writing departments in every university in the country. Then ban the genre of “domestic literary fiction.”

As is obvious, however, Elif Batuman is already aware of the Vast Egregious Boondoggle that is the contemporary American short story. I’m sure she is also aware that the people interested in selling books — her agent, her editors, all of the establishment literary world — would prefer that her next novel stay with realistic characters and pedestrian plots. She is in a position now to defy those agents and editors. Write something new, vivid, vital now, Elif. Something ambitious, something with literary panache. Write us a piece of Literature.

While I’m in the process of giving advice, here is a bit more. Time for you to get away from using Dostoevsky’s titles for your books. I wracked my brain to find anything in common between the tone, style, themes of Dostoevsky’s Idiot and yours. The two Idiots just have little in common. Your books (gratefully) have none of the melodrama and hysteria of Dostoevsky, none of the frantic pace. They have nice touches of humor, but not his dark humor.

A final message from Fyodor Mikhailovich himself: Елишка, миленькая! Твой первый роман я читал с интересом. Ничего себе, но ты умеешь писать куда лучше. Пиши художественную литературу. Желаю успехов. Целую. Федя (Elishka My Dear, I read your first novel with interest. Not bad stuff, but you can do a whole lot better. Write some High Art. I wish you success. Kisses. Fedya)

U.R. Bowie, author of Hard Mother: A Novel in Lectures and Dreams, 2016

One thought on “The Idiot by Elif Batuman

  1. “Literary trash sells in America.” I agree with this in essence, but maybe we can agree there’s nothing literary about the trash that sells in America. I think you more or less nailed what’s right and wrong about The Idiot. It is a funny book, but the main idea seems to be a recounting of what it’s like to see the the world in a certain time and a certain place with absolutely no context, which is to say, much of it is bizarre. I don’t think we needed 400 pages to have fun with that, though, and anyway, it’s not exactly a new idea. Her first book was better and her essays, I think, are excellent, so I’m hopeful she will give us a good novel yet.

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