Review: The Idiot

The titular protagonist of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot is Selin, a 19-year-old Turkish-American who’s just started at Harvard. While taking esoteric classes in linguistic and literary theory and navigating the strangenesses of college, she meets Ivan, an older student of mathematics who captivates her with (what we recognise as) pretentious bullshit, and then invites her to Hungary to take part in an English teaching programme he helps run. She doesn’t speak any Hungarian.

The key point in all this is the heady mix of naivete and academic intelligence Selin embodies. In that sense, she reminds me a lot of Blue van Meer, the protagonist of Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics: she’s a person that books built, at an age where everything seems profound and important, and that passion for knowledge and deep thought makes her vulnerable to idiots like Ivan (who essentially strings her along despite being with girlfriend himself).

It’s a novel in which very little happens. In the first half, Selin goes to lectures and classes, hangs out with friends, pines for Ivan, has thoughts about language and knowledge and fiction. Then, in the second half, she goes to Hungary, teaches English, misunderstands people, has thoughts about language and knowledge and fiction.

I know, I know. It doesn’t sound exactly gripping. But I enjoyed The Idiot. It was a nice book just to be in: I have a weakness for campus novels and for precocious student protagonists because I went to the kind of university where theory lectures walk the line between profound and ridiculous and I was a precocious student. And I found Selin’s entanglements with Ivan both frustrating and believable.

I think, in its own quiet way, The Idiot is a novel that’s challenging notions of what traditional narrative is for. Nothing happens, nothing gets resolved; there’s no narrative arc, exactly, just 400+ pages of Selin learning how to navigate who she is in America and who she is in Hungary (her identity as a Turkish woman comes into play here), creating a theoretical and practical framework for her self and for her understanding of the world. It’s a novel that just is; that allows us and its heroine just to be.

It’s nice. I don’t know that I’d read it again, particularly. But I enjoyed it; I think it deserves its place in the world.

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