The Idiot by Elif Batuman, review by Bruce Jacobs
Things were perhaps simpler in the '90s--almost quaint. When Selin Karada, the slightly off-plumb narrator of Elif Batuman's first novel, The Idiot, enters Harvard mid-decade, e-mail is a curious new way to communicate and Facebook is just a Zuckerberg dream. With characteristic wonder and metaphysical musing, she is enthralled: "Each message contained the one that had come before, and so your own words came back to you--it was like the story of your relations with others." The daughter of ambitious Turkish immigrants, Selin was an academic star in her New Jersey high school, but at Harvard "you were now a little fish in a big sea." But she dives into the rich curriculum, choosing courses in Russian linguistics, art cinema and world literature, meanwhile dealing with quirky roommates, renting obscure movies and fearlessly running along the Charles River with her Walkman blasting They Might Be Giants in her ears.
Tall and socially awkward, Selin nurtures a romance by e-mail with Ivan, the older Hungarian from her Russian class, yet she knows herself well enough to recognize that "I was just an American teenager--the world's least interesting and dignified kind of person." Nonetheless, she soldiers on, taking a job teaching ESL to immigrants in Boston, reading classics like "Bleak House, which was as simultaneously absorbing and off-putting as someone else's incredibly long dream," and signing up for a summer travel program providing English skills to children in Hungarian villages--with the vague plan to see Ivan there and meet his family and friends.
A staff writer at the New Yorker, Batuman first explored some of the themes of The Idiot in her well-regarded first book, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. With the titles of both clearly reflecting her fascination with Dostoevsky, they are nonetheless rooted in the language and optimism of the United States. Describing a year of discovering oneself, The Idiot is half The Education of Henry Adams and half Innocents Abroad. Twain would have savored Selin's first international trip to Paris, Hungary and Turkey (one that begins with flight attendants showing "how we could use our seat cushions to float around on the Atlantic Ocean"), chuckling at her description of the weeks in Hungary: "Hungary felt increasingly like reading War and Peace: new characters came up every five minutes... and you had to pay attention to them for a time, even though you might never see them again." And Adams surely would have applauded Selin's frustration with traditional learning, where she "read hundreds, thousands of pages of the distilled ideas of the great thinkers of human history and nothing happened." Instead she grows wise having morning coffee among commuters in a Boston transit station "where people were working and staying awake and trying to accomplish things, which was the point of coffee." Our first footsteps into adulthood are often memorable. Taking them in Selin's shoes is an entertaining, intellectual journey not to be missed.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.