The Idiot by Elif Batuman
Published by Penguin Books, 2017
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
Re-readable: I don’t recommend coming back to this one.
Reviewed by Indiana
Spoilers ahead (kinda)
So I’m not sure if this book is titled The Idiot because the author is making fun of the main character or of me for having read the entire book.
But I don’t really want to give this book more time than it deserves so here we go.
The author, Elif Batuman loathes normal fiction that can be categorized easily. Instead, Batuman prefers long, winding, meandering, rambling, circuitous, drifting, roaming, discursive, and straying novels. (If you catch my drift).
Well, if The Idiot was the author’s attempt to make one of those, congratulations Batuman! You did it.
Okay, this is starting to sound really harsh. Let’s take a step back.
The Idiot follows the story of Selin, who is entering into her freshman year at Harvard during the 1990s. It’s just as email has become a shiny and new way to communicate and she’s away from her mother for the very first time.
Selin takes a Russian class and befriends a rather loquacious, yet loveable classmate named Svetlana. For some reason or other, Selin becomes irrepressibly attracted to Ivan, who is a senior at Harvard also enrolled in her Russian class. She begins emailing him and they start . . . something. Something that is never entirely resolved.
Beyond classes Selin volunteers with immigrants (she’s the daughter of Turkish immigrants) and those in low-income schools. Sometimes the students have trouble with English or math. She also goes to Hungary to help young students learn English.
Much of the book feels plotless. Indeed the plot doesn’t seem to be a major reason why the book exists. It’s mostly about the ways in which people communicate, or rather don’t communicate effectively. Ivan’s emails started out enthralling Selin, but then they got confusing.
Even when they’re talking face to face things only go well every once in a while.
The one thing this book had going for it was the humor. Batuman was spot on with many awkward and somehow universal college experiences. Like such:
“Short aggressive men kept dancing close to Lakshmi, who had found a way to incorporate rejection into her dancing, rolling her eyes and tossing her hair and angling her lovely shoulders away. Less Frequently, one of the men would try to dance with me. I would nod in a businesslike manner and then turn away as if I had remembered something important I had to do.”
“So how old are you anyway?” he asked.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake. This isn’t a freshman class.”
“Oh. Should I leave?”
“No, don’t be ridiculous. Let’s take a look at your work.”
“I was wearing men’s Birkenstocks, which were so ugly that I thought they would be good for hiking, but they weren’t.”
Too bad the humor didn’t make up for the lack of a good story line. I wish it did. Maybe if it were a collection of short stories I could get behind it. But it’s not. It’s a novel devoid of a compelling plot, which could have easily been remedied if the author hadn’t been afraid of writing a novel that was too “typical.”