The exceptionality of Elif Batuman’s “The Idiot”

Courtesy of Penguin Press.

I first glimpsed the cover of  “The Idiot” by Elif Batuman nearly two years ago. I was in my hometown bookstore, ambling through the air-conditioned shop on a yellow, lethargic July day in Connecticut. I didn’t pick up the book or read the summary or even consider purchasing it. It stayed on the shelf, but I recall being struck by the lucidity of its cover: a pale pink background, a simple serif font and the image of a large gray stone. 

I didn’t think much of it when I left the bookstore that day without “The Idiot” in hand. However, the novel began to make more appearances in my life. It started as a supporting character—its title cropping up in articles I had to read for school or in the news. Slowly, Batuman’s debut novel became a primary protagonist in my life. I didn’t seek it out, but without fail, that bubblegum pink seemed to find me whenever I entered a bookstore. 

Perhaps by chance, I was given this novel for Christmas a year or so ago. The proportion of books I own to the time I have available to actually read them is extremely unequal, so “The Idiot” gathered dust on my bookshelf until this year’s spring break, when, at last, I decided to open it. 

Published in 2017, “The Idiot” tells the story of a first year college student at Harvard University in 1995. I entered this story completely unaware of its premise—it just so happened that after years of deferring it, I read it during the spring semester of my very own first year at college. 

“The Idiot” follows no obvious plot. Selin Karadağ, a linguistics student and daughter of Turkish immigrants who dreams of becoming a writer, moves through a rather ordinary college routine—attending class, eating in the dining hall, and existing in a shared space with her two roommates, Hannah and Angela. Selin befriends a young Serbian woman named Svetlana, who grows throughout the story to become her closest companion, and a student named Ralph, whom she had known previously through a summer program. Selin’s only relationship that overshadows either of these connections is with Ivan, a senior mathematics student from Hungary. 

Selin and Ivan meet in a Russian language course and begin corresponding through email, a novel and fascinating source of communication for Selin as a young woman in 1995. Selin and Ivan grow closer throughout the school year. Although all of their interactions—both over email and in person—are very emotionally intense, their relationship remains platonic. 

When the school year ends, Selin goes abroad to a Hungarian village to teach English. She makes this decision because she longs to be a writer and values the eccentric life over the logical one—meaning she would rather gain experience in a Hungarian village than intern, say, at at a literary magazine (as one of her peers chooses to do). Selin also partakes on this trip in hopes of meeting up with Ivan in his home country. She spends the summer confused, exhilarated and heartbroken, spending time with her close friend Svetlana in Europe, and coming to terms with her feelings for Ivan and the inevitably of becoming a writer. 

Selin is deeply aware of her own ignorance. Amid a landscape of contemporary novels that portray characters as quick-witted and audacious, Selin’s ability to say “I don’t know” when considering grand life questions comes as an ocean of relief. She is a heroine not because she is the chosen one, the most talented or the most beautiful in the story. She is a heroine because she is comfortable with her own shortcomings, her sometimes overwhelming insecurities and because her journey reflects the desires of many young women beginning their college careers; she longs to stretch her perception of the world, achieve academic success and perhaps fall in love. Selin holds a quiet but intense ambition for her life. At one point in the novel she says, “There is no suffering if you don’t want anything.”

The relationship between Selin and Ivan is especially powerful given that their connection is largely formed through the written word. In “The Idiot,” language serves as a force of romance and as a way to portray and define one’s human existence. For Selin, language is also a door to culture. When considering her ties to both Turkey and America, she explains, “I knew I thought differently in Turkish and in English—not because thought and language were the same, but because different languages forced you to think about different things.”

Selin’s experience with language provoked many questions for me: do our experiences matter more when they are written down? How do our social and romantic interactions change when they are filtered through the internet? How does literature and language inform our understanding of life and culture? 

Like Selin, I don’t have the answers to these questions. “The Idiot” does not offer solutions to the cultural and technological plights that my generation must grapple with—romantic love manufactured by algorithms in dating apps, the inevitable separation between a person and the real world when what matters most in society exists in an intangible realm, and the personal and aesthetic value of stories in a world that is defined by shortening attention spans and instant gratification. 

However, the evasiveness of Batuman’s narrative proves to be the most important part. By forcing the reader to consider these questions on their own, they are forced into the same position as Selin—this unlocks levels of empathy for Selin as a character and establishes a symbiotic relationship between Selin and the reader. Just as the reader must experience every one of Selin’s emotions, Selin’s probing questions about life create space for and encourage the reader’s own experiences. 

Through the philosophical exploration and almost diary-like writing in “The Idiot,” Batuman separates herself and her work from the standardized narrative structure of contemporary literature and ventures into a realm of experimentation. Her simple, intimate prose conveys the larger problems raised throughout the narrative and guides the reader into a place of contemplation and complete questioning.

Despite the deeper issues bubbling under the surface, Batuman invokes deadpan humor and ingenuous romantic desire to create an unpretentious and easily accessible story about growing up, learning to exist in one’s own way and falling in love. One of my favorite quotes from the novel comes near the beginning when Selin says, “I knew it was wrong to do things just because other people did. Other people couldn’t be the reason why you did anything.” 

“The Idiot” is a beautiful book because Batuman does not make the mundane exceptional; she reveals the exceptionality of the mundane. 

The sequel to “The Idiot” will be published on May 24, 2022, titled “Either/Or.” 

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