This Pulitzer Prize finalist casts a complex nostalgic light on new experiences, from first loves to email, and asks what it means to live an aesthetic, academic life.
It’s like…the Nora Ephron movie "You’ve Got Mail", but a lot moodier, broodier, and without any Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan charm.
If you came of age sometime between the late nineties and early aughts, you probably have memories of chatting with friends on some instant messaging system like AIM or ICQ. You’ll likely also remember the embarrassing status updates, often a cryptic song lyric, that you would post in hopes of a particular someone reading it and causing them to wonder about you.
If this applies to you, you’ll have much to relate to in Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot. The question of how to use technology to communicate with your crush effectively is one of the throughlines of this book, which was a finalist for the prestigious Pulitzer Prize award for fiction in 2018, and which, as it so often happens, has propelled its author to the highest rungs of the literary establishment.
The Idiot is a Bildungsroman that follows a year in the life of protagonist Selin Karadağ, a linguistics freshman at Harvard, as she navigates an entire syllabus of new experiences and the impact they have on her identity as a woman, student, Turkish-American, and as an aspiring writer, all playing out in front of the vivid backdrop of 1990s academia.
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There are two critical, converging events that lead to the novel’s central conflict: Selin meets an intriguing Hungarian mathematics student named Ivan in a Russian seminar and then one night decides to email him through Harvard’s internal email program. A complicated relationship ensues. Selin doesn’t know how to interpret Ivan’s mixed messages in his emails and during the few times, they meet in person. This "talking to each other but we’re talking past each other" way of conversing accompanies Selin through her year of weirdly specific classes with memorable oddball characters, to a few weeks in Paris with her best friend Svetlana, and then into the Hungarian countryside, a trip she took to feel closer to Ivan. However, he isn’t there with her, and she spends most of her time miserable and confused.
For anyone who has gone through a similar experience – and I’d wager that most people have – it’s both affirming and somewhat frustrating to accompany Selin as she obsesses over a guy who is just stringing her along. As a reader, we may be comforted. If an objectively intelligent and talented woman like Selin can be misguided and naive (given she is nineteen), we may feel less harmful about our misjudgments. But that is also what makes it so infuriating. What do we sacrifice for men who are not worthy of us? What do we sacrifice for the experiences that we think we should be having because they fit into society’s expectations?
Perhaps we’re frustrated because we feel protective of Selin. We’ve gone through all of those shitty first experiences of early adulthood, and we want to spare her from them: being away from home, first encounters with alcohol, complicated body image issues, and unrequited love. But even the characters within the novel who want the best for Selin – her mother and her best friend Svetlana – are ignored as Selin insists on going down a path of hurt and calling it self-discovery.
Chronic overthinkers will identify with Selin’s habit of analyzing and re-analyzing every snippet of information she receives from Ivan. Here she is over-analyzing her constant re-reading of his emails:
"I read Ivan's messages over and over, thinking about what they meant. I felt ashamed, but why? Why was it more honorable to reread and interpret a novel like Lost Illusions than to reread and interpret some email from Ivan? Was it because Ivan wasn't as good a writer as Balzac? (But I thought Ivan was a good writer.) Was it because Balzac's novels had been read and analyzed by hundreds of professors, so that reading and interpreting Balzac was like participating in a conversation with all these professors, and was, therefore, a higher and more meaningful activity than reading an email only I could see? But the fact that the email had been written specifically to me, in response to things I had said, made it literally a conversation, in the way that Balzac's novels—written for a general audience, ultimately in order to turn a profit for the printing industry—were not; and so wasn't what I was doing in a way more authentic, and more human?"
Though it might seem pretentious to use an extended Balzac reference to justify obsession, Selin’s literary, linguistic, and philosophical tangents are the novel's most exciting and rewarding parts. As a Turkish-American linguistics student learning Russian and Hungarian, Selin views a lot of her life through the lens of languages – what they have in common, what they don’t, and the awkward misunderstandings that can arise from them. Take this quick aside on Boris Pasternak:
"There was a poem with that mood by Pasternak: "Don’t sleep, don’t sleep, artist." It sounded better in Russian because the word for "artist" had three syllables; it was an amphibrach, like "spaghetti," or "appendix." Don’t sleep, don’t sleep, gorilla, I thought as I went down the elevator to the subway platform."
Selin’s constant analysis of everything she comes in contact with causes her to rearrange things mentally. Words get broken down to the very core of their meaning. When unsatisfied with the result, Selin looks for meanings in other languages or wishes for a different interpretation altogether. (Again, her obsession with Ivan causes her not to see things clearly).
Quick references to Sartre, Cassini, and Dumas or a foreign film screening at the university pique the reader’s interest the most. The Idiot is a novel for those seeking to broaden their intellectual reference points. Batuman makes sure to drop all the proper names, movements, and schools of thought to show how educated, interested, and intriguing all her characters are. Some readers might find this off-putting and pompous; those who aspire to a pseudo-academic life will receive many things to look up to later.
But all of this is not to say the novel lacks substance. It’s a truthful insight into the mind of a late bloomer who is faced with many new experiences and deciding, in real-time, how to handle them. Selin doesn’t always get it right, but that’s part of the learning process and how we become who we are. Some experiences, even if annoying for the reader, must be had for us all to grow.
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