In the last lines of The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, her book about her quest to find the meaning of life in Russian literature, Elif Batuman reaffirmed her almost religious commitment to books and reading. “I haven’t given up,” she wrote. “If I could start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or in the universe, I still think that’s where we’re going to find them.”
Batuman’s new novel, The Idiot, offers a more cautionary tale about the power of stories to reveal the truth behind everyday experience. Like Batuman herself, its hero Selin Karadag is a devoted student of linguistics and literature. She takes them up like Don Quixote’s lance and tilts them toward the world, as if they were the ultimate existential weapons. But instead of slaying giants, she only learns how little she knows.
The story begins with Selin’s arrival at freshman orientation, where she learns what e-mail is. It is, she says, another world,
a glowing list of messages from all the people you knew, and from people you didn’t know, all in the same letters, like the universal handwriting of thought or of the world…. All the words you threw out, they came back. It was like the story of your relations with others, the story of the intersection of your life with other lives, was constantly being recorded and updated, and you could check it at any time.
College itself is as absurd, chaotic, and intoxicating as a dream. It consists of a series of magically disconnected events and conversations. People act the way they do in surrealist films.
Selin’s roommate, who is applying to be a campus tour guide, recites Harvard trivia in the shower in an enchanting voice. Selin fails to get into a freshman seminar after telling the professor that she won’t enjoy reading a passage of text over and over again, for hours. But she is admitted to a film class after she and the professor sit together in a basement full of flickering blue screens, sneezing continually. Her literature professor translates every student’s question into another question he would rather answer, causing the students to gesture frantically and wave their arms, to try to get him to answer the original question. When they persist, he cuts them off.
The novel’s college scenes are electrified by the thrill of self-discovery. “What is at stake,” Selin’s art instructor explains, as he analyzes a photograph of a woman applying lipstick at a vanity table, “is the invention of the self.”
Batuman has a gift for imaginative description, brilliant digressions, and deadpan comic delivery. The Boston T “was completely different from the New York subway—the lines named after colors, the cars so clean and small like toys. And yet it wasn’t a toy, grown men used it, with serious expressions on their faces.” Everyone in Russian class “reacted differently to being spoken to in a language they didn’t understand…. Boris, a bearded doctoral student, rifled guiltily through his notes like someone having a nightmare that he was already supposed to speak Russian.” Later in the novel there is a magical disquisition on the Beatles.
If the world lacks form, and existence is a barrage of undifferentiated experience, language is the tool that can make it all make sense. In linguistics, Selin learns that language is a universal human instinct, that it even precedes thought. She and Ivan, a quirky and extremely tall senior in her Russian class, read the story “Nina in Siberia” together. It’s a text for beginning students in which Nina, a graduate student in physics, suffers an unrequited love for a fellow student, also named Ivan, who has left school to live on a collective farm in Siberia. Eventually, Nina follows him there. Selin initiates an email correspondence with the real Ivan that grows into an epistolary romance of sorts, a virtual love affair. Ivan has a girlfriend, but Selin is undeterred. She and Ivan take several long walks around the campus that never quite turn into dates. After graduation, Ivan returns to Budapest, where Selin takes a five-week summer internship teaching English to Hungarian villagers, in the hopes of spending time with him.
The reviewers who have been critical of The Idiot have focused on Selin’s pursuit of Ivan, and it’s true that when the couple are together the novel loses its brisk pace and antic charm. They take long walks around the campus in which they struggle to have a conversation. In Hungary, they canoe along the Danube, where they struggle to have a conversation. Dwight Garner, in his New York Times review, said he was tired of Ivan after one hundred pages and I can understand the feeling. I often found myself waiting patiently for him to leave.
But I think Batuman made those scenes drag on purpose. Selin, a master of the tools of language, is drawn to the idea that her life should tell a story—specifically a love story between her and Ivan. Maybe she is mistaken. Maybe she is trying too hard. In any case, her effort to construct that story leads her astray, if not to Siberia, at least to its emotional equivalent. The Idiot, Batuman has said, is about life “falling outside of narrative.” It dramatizes a semiotic tragedy perfectly suited for its brainy Harvard undergraduate—the alienation, and even heartbreak, of losing the narrative thread of your existence.
A real life, The Idiot seems to argue, would be unconstructed. It would just happen to you. There is a scene I particularly loved, when Selin spends a few days in Budapest before she travels to the countryside. Ivan is away, again, and she and her friends are standing on a prospect overlooking the Danube River. She looks down and sees what she describes as “a barrel-chested man and a tiny little girl in a blue bikini.” They are, of course, a father swimming with his daughter. “The man stood awkwardly,” Batuman writes, “like the first guest at a party, shifting his weight in the knee-deep water and rubbing his arms.
Then he squatted so that only his head stuck out of the water. Then he vanished altogether, reappearing nearly a minute later with a perplexed expression. The girl clapped and shrieked, turned the man around by his shoulders, and climbed onto his back. The man stood up, his torso plastered with leaves. Overwhelmed by happiness, the little girl began to sing. She was so happy—but she didn’t know what anything really was. She didn’t know what anything meant. She knew even less than we did.