An Idiot's Guide: from Dostoevsky to Batuman

A review of Elif Batuman's 'The Idiot'



The Idiot

By Elif Batuman

Penguin Press (2017), 432 pages



On a rainy day in Soho, I slip into McNally Jackson bookstore and wander to a table of staff picks, where my eyes quickly catch a bubblegum-pink hardback: The Idiot by Elif Batuman. The book appears both crude and delicate. I want to pick it up, but because another patron is blocking my reach, I move on. Within the next ten minutes, I find The Idiot in two other locations in the store, once in the stocked novels and later in the center of the bestsellers display wall. After the third spotting, I'm not sure if my curiosity has heightened or if I now just feel obliged to be in on the hype. How hadn’t I heard of this book, anyway? The nonconformist in me says to let it go. Other artists could benefit from my attention. I leave McNally’s with a small book of poetry and I’m content to have eluded Batuman’s novel. However, when I arrive home later that night, I find my decision, perhaps by a roommate’s doing, unexpectedly overruled. On my living room bookshelf, haunting but innocuous, sits The Idiot.


Having understood the Dostoevsky reference, maybe I was expecting a millennial rendition of his Idiot. I thought I could at least count on brooding temperaments, some human suffering, a murder maybe. What I got instead was Batuman’s semi-autobiographical narrative of a young woman’s entry into Harvard University in the mid-1990s.


Not at all diverging from the typical experiences of the freshman undergrad—the random roommate assignment, the pretentious classroom performances, the taste of beer, the virginity, the extracurricular volunteer hours, the first college crush—the plot of Batuman's The Idiot is as bubblegum as its cover. Its major action is the protagonist Selin Karadağ’s virtual intimacy with her Russian class crush Ivan and the summer break she spends teaching English in his home country of Hungary. 


So essentially, the upper middle class American girl goes to an Ivy League school where she develops a crush on a boy? Sounds more like “Gilmore Girls,” right? Or “Dawson’s Creek,” season five but without the sex? More than 400 pages of freshman year at college, and there's no sex! So with a hackneyed YA plot bereft of its most exhilarating element, I must ask, how exactly is steam still rolling off this novel?


Fifty or so pages in, I think I have it: satire. “I was an American teenager,” laments Karadağ, “the world’s least interesting and dignified person.” The Idiot must be a genius satire of the life of the American teenager. Yes, the mundanity is just a big twisted joke, a kind of dark comedy, à la the eighties cult classic “Heathers” or Alexander Payne's “Election.” Batuman is lampooning the popular culture teen genre and strategically torturing us with the absence of the would-be hormone-driven lust that fuels series’ like “Dawson's Creek.”


But no, I read on to the end to find that Batuman is not at all in jest; she has, in fact, written a genuine bildungsroman. So if not cunning satire, what is so riveting about this book?


Written from a first person perspective, the brilliance of Batuman’s work is the musings of her protagonist. While the storyline may hover slightly above insipid, it’s the manner in which young Karadağ parses through the banal conventions of her late adolescence that keeps the adults reading. With sentences like “Gray dull snowbanks began melting to reveal all kinds of half-frozen garbage. The air smelled of dirt. You were always tripping over dead birds,” Selin Karadağ is delightful in her drollness. From an 18-year-old protagonist, we might expect narcissism, frivolity, or capriciousness, though what Batuman delivers is anything but. Karadağ is perceptive, humble, not at all the obnoxious young adult that sometimes intimidates us, and most amusingly to the literary aficionados, she's impressively well read.


Although she might be out buying posters for her dorm room or passing off fake IDs in front of club bouncers, Selin’s internal monologue is saturated with literary commentary. From Balzac to Dickens, Tolstoy to Kundera, not to leave out our brother Dostoevsky—the girl can juggle her classics. And unlike fellow classmates that merely parrot the pedantry of their professors, Karadağ forms and upholds her own opinions. When asked about her taste in Dostoevsky, she responds rakishly, “He makes me embarrassed and tired.” 


When not discussing literature, Karadağ is analyzing language and linguistics, always with a slight irreverence for the institutional knowledge imparted to her. While Chomskians are stridently rebutting the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language shapes a speaker's worldview, Karadağ, trusting more the validity of her own experience, insists “in my heart, I knew Whorf was right." The daughter of Turkish immigrants, Karadağ is not merely bilingual—she’s a budding polyglot, remarking throughout the duration of the book on the structure and uniqueness of myriad languages, among them Turkish, Russian, Hungarian, and Spanish. In this sense, the book possesses a didactic element. Ideal for language lovers, readers learn about the Turkish inferential tense, genderless Hungarian pronouns, and that both languages are relatives in the family of agglutinative languages. 


Despite her mature, scholastic meditations, Batuman hasn’t simply supplanted Karadağ’s teenage psyche with that of her own. On the contrary, readers will find Karadağ's youthfulness well intact. Amidst her contemplations, Karadağ ponders questions like “Why was addition so much easier than subtraction?” or “Why was it more honorable to reread and interpret a novel like Lost Illusions than to reread and interpret some email from Ivan?”—curiosities that appear markedly adolescent next to her mentions of Gogol or Donald Davidson.


But how, you may wonder, does this not return the novel to its initial predicament? How, in other words, does Batuman keep her narrator true to character without reducing her novel to teenage fluff? 


It eventually occurred to me that it might not be Batuman’s intention to run from the fluff—that it might be precisely the fluff that she wants on exhibition. On the surface, Karadağ's ponderings may sound like valley girl effusions, but perhaps Batuman is inviting us to view what's philosophical there. Why is accumulation so much easier for the human being than reduction? And aren’t personal emails just as hermeneutically disposed as nineteenth century French literature? While the American teenager—notably the teenage female—is often cast as vapid or fatuous, Batuman pushes us to see that there is indeed something “interesting and dignified” about this character. She is not the idiot.


Figur Der Idiot 1867, by Dostoevsky

Its title might merely be an homage to Dostoevsky, but both Idiots appear to have a parallel moral. Assumed by onlookers to be a guileless imbecile, Dostoevsky's Prince Myshkin is in actuality, like Karadağ, acutely pensive and self-aware. Batuman invites readers to see that while we might often dismiss the adolescent’s experiences or preoccupations as puerile, there are many rich insights to be gleaned from the adolescent narrative.


Karadağ’s journey at Harvard illuminates the often absurd nature of intellectualism and intellectual connection. Harboring a bounty of facile but incisive reflections, her account catapults readers into ruminations of their own. Karadağ’s introspective conclusion about herself as an ESL teacher, for instance, “I realized I would have never corrected someone who said ‘I can feel the food’," may occasion inquiry into distinctions between style and form, artist and teacher, or even what it means to be a writer.


As these thought-mines are peppered throughout, the general takeaway from Batuman’s novel is established as early as its epigraph. Quoting Proust, the book opens, “In later life we look at things in a more practical way, [...] but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything." That is to say, adolescence—in all its juvenility—is a period that ought to be honored. If readers find Batuman’s seemingly stodgy, YA-straddling fiction tedious, they may be overlooking her point—that in these adolescent years lies an ocean of equally valuable experience.



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