I was lucky enough to read this book at the right time. I can see this novel being a hit or miss for so many people depending on the circumstances in which they come across this work. Here are some personal things that helped with fully grasping this novel at the right time: Earlier this month I read The First Bad Man by Miranda July and was introduced to a very particular niche-kind of narrating voice. When I was about to enter my first year of university an online group hosted by the soon-to-be second years in our program constantly repeated to newcomers: whatever you do, don’t be pretentious. My observations of Canada, coming from Eastern Europe, and studying Russian Literature in undergrad. All these come into play in my personal experience reading this novel.
The Idiot by Elif Batuman is what I would classify as a “campus novel.” It’s about young people trying to figure themselves out, trying to learn from the clean theory work, and realizing that it doesn’t match up to the messiness of the real world. To me, this novel read like The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, but written in the style of Miranda July. I think Batuman was more successful in the deadpan narration because her writing has an aesthetic that isn’t bordering the grotesque which had me very distracted in the July novel.
The Idiot follows Selin, a Turkish-American young woman in the mid-90s, who is a first year undergraduate student at Harvard. She has a few eccentric friends and roommates and falls in love with Ivan, an emotionally unavailable Hungarian math major. The plot is overly simplistic. The first half involves campus experiences from first year undergrad at Harvard, and the second involves Selin following Ivan to Hungary under the pretext of teaching English to children in a village and becoming completely disappointed in a lot of aspects of her life, her studies, and her relationships. Before I elaborate on what I enjoyed about this novel and where it felt short for me, I’d like to list the two sentiments expressed by many other reviewers in places where readers couldn’t get along with the narration style or the characters. The first is:
“It’s basically a rite of passage for a college-age girl to go through that phase where she falls in love with an intellectually exciting but emotionally inept asshole.”
And the second is:
“Selin is an Ivy League student who does not need to hold down a job, has zero problems in life and seems to spend all day reading fun texts and thinking about, yes, herself. Still, she is pretentiously suffering from disorientation. Get a life, Selin, your #firstworldproblems are a bore. Full disclosure: I never had much sympathy for people who seem to want to crawl back to their high school (and mommy), because, like, college is, like, so hard and stuff. It’s not. College is a privilege, so grow up and get over yourself. It’s a mystery to me how Selin can have so little fun there without any apparent reason”
Accusations of pretentiousness, lack of self-awareness, first world problems, and white-girl-type relationship drama are reasons listed by people as to why this novel fell short for them.
My argument is that this novel about a person becoming self-aware. From the get-go if you don’t think most people at Harvard are already at the top of the college hierarchy then you didn’t start reading this novel on the right foot. I personally went to a pretty ‘prestigious’ and respectable university and met people of unmatchable privilege, and it doesn’t even come close to Harvard’s reputation. Given the setting, I would say Selin is quite humble. The novel is filled with deadpan comedy, situational humour, quiet bizarre moments, and Selin adjusting her headspace to make room for all these things in her life. You realize shortly after that Selin is very self-aware that despite being surrounded by some of the world’s ‘most intelligent’ people each one of them is ‘an idiot’ in various aspects of real life in the ‘real’ world. I think if I had to sum up this novel in one word it would be “realizations.” Reading it feels like you are walking through the simple actions of life with a very quirky friend, and the whole time you sort of hear life from their odd point of view. When Selin takes literature classes she says: “I wasn’t interested in society, or ancient people’s money troubles. I wanted to know what books really meant.” Stopping to think what that would mean in terms of discussion. There are many quiet moments like these where Selin just makes statements and observations and as a reader I found myself going ‘heh, I never thought about it in that light before.’ For example, Selin contemplates that Disney villains knew they were evil and prided themselves on it, whereas in the real world bad people think they’re the good guys, what it would have meant to really love certain historical figures like Lenin, or feeling trapped when you realize every one of your experiences is some form of oppression on some people somewhere at all times when you really want to do the right thing.
The novel is also filled with movie analyses, book references (particularly Russian literature), side-comments about these novels, cultural references, and a set of quirky characters. Selin is constantly grasping at experience and trying to form an identity while she is constantly disappointed that real life never matched her romanticized notions and expectations. That hit every college student experiences when they realize that even though they were the smartest fish in the small pond that is high school, they are now surrounded by thousands of overachievers, intellects, and people with a drive that is unmatchable: people who invent vaccines, Nobel Prize winners, and self-starting billionaries. There are no lessons learned really, the deadpan style of comedy is somewhat depressing at times, and the mixture of observations and ‘true to life’ experiences gives this novel a shroud of hyper-realism in a way. It feels like real life, while the characters are still part of the top 1%. What makes the novel fall short is its length. What starts out being charming and endearing becomes sort of dry and dragged out by its length. There’s only so much time one can spend with overly odd characters at a time, and only so many Zoey Deschanel movies one can watch in a row.
Overall I really enjoyed this book, and I would recommend it if you like campus novels, if you want to be brought back to a time when you were surrounded by pretentious nerds, if you like quirkiness and odd observations from strange characters, and if any of the things I said above sounds like you might want to give this book a try. It really works if you’re in the right mindset for it. The Idiot was short listed for the 2018 Women’s Prize in literature. I found it worth my time, and I wish I could have discussed this with someone as I was reading it, so maybe a good book club choice? Overall, I think for a debut novel it’s excellent.