The Idiot by Elif Batuman is a book I can say I REALLY liked, without hesitation. Although I expected to LOVE it when I began (and probably give it a 5-star rating), the narration and plot started to drag a little for me toward the halfway point…however, I still thoroughly enjoyed this debut novel and found many moments to be laugh out loud funny and highly entertaining.
The Idiot is a novel that I think recent college and university graduates would find very compelling. I graduated from the University of Toronto only a short while ago, and so the experiences of attending lectures, completing long and arduous research papers, and developing friendships with a wide array of likeminded individuals are fresh in my mind. This meant that I instantly connected with the main character and narrator of The Idiot, Selin, and I found her interactions and anxieties to be relatable and realistic. Selin immediately comes across as very intelligent, if a bit socially awkward, and I enjoyed reading about her various classes, particularly her linguistics course, which reminded me of my own first-year linguistics class, and some of her stranger seminars like the Crooked Worlds “art” class she finds herself a part of. I also found it ingenious on Batuman’s part that she included samples of Selin’s required readings in the text of the novel: the references to Noam Chomsky’s theories brought me right back to Linguistics 101, and I particularly enjoyed the short “novel” Nina in Siberia that Selin is required to reading for her Introductory Russian course and which the reader is invited to study along with her. Pieces of Nina in Siberia became my favourite aspects of the novel, and I found it interesting to receive Selin’s thoughts about the text, from her academic perspective, because it felt as though Selin and I were fellow students, working through our course text together before a big exam. Batuman expertly writes about the college/university experience, and this was a topic I for one really appreciated. Obviously, this sort of text won’t be for everyone, but it definitely was one I easily became immersed in.
“It was hard to decide on a literature class. Everything the professor said seemed to be somehow beside the point. You wanted to know why Anna had to die, and instead they told you that nineteenth-century Russian landowners felt conflicted about whether they were really a part of Europe. The implication was that it was somehow naïve to want to talk about anything interesting, or to think that you would ever know anything important.”
As I mentioned previously, Selin is also a deeply self-conscious character, and this made her all the more human. Selin is confident in many academic ways, trying out classes that I never would’ve had the courage to enroll in during my own university years. She is, however, very self-conscious when it comes to her interactions with her fellow students, particularly her friend, Ivan. Selin and Ivan first begin their communications over the newly invented email, and although they have Russian class together, most of their conversations for two thirds of the novel are entirely in written form. This puts Selin in a peculiar position of being in love with Ivan, but of also being totally unable to speak to him in person. Both Selin and Ivan have difficulty navigating this “relationship” that they’ve created, and a large portion of the novel is devoted to Selin trying to figure out how Ivan feels about her and existing in this sort of limbo full of unrequited and confusing emotions. In this way, Batuman does an excellent job of portraying the uncertainties of being a first-year university student – the fact that you are treated like an adult, and yet still maintain the uncertainties of an adolescent life of the not so distant past. Selin is at once an adult with responsibilities and freedoms, but from an emotional perspective, she is still very much a child, a high school student, and so Batuman is able to explore the complexities of first love and of finding oneself in an environment of people with equally complex personalities.
“But, to me, nineteen still felt old and somehow alien to who I was. It occurred to me that it might take more than a year – maybe as many as seven years – to learn to feel nineteen.”
Selin’s friendships are also explored, and it is interesting to watch her interact with female characters like Svetlana and her roommates. Selin’s dry wit and humour make her interactions with her female friends often seem stilted and one-sided, but it also becomes clear very quickly that Selin is well-liked, especially by Svetlana, whose personality is so markedly different from Selin’s that it is very interesting to watch their friendship blossom and to witness the ways that these two young women support each other. I found the interpersonal relationships in this novel to be fascinating, and I even enjoyed the brief moments when Selin interacts with her mother and feels as though she must justify her decisions and actions, particularly those involving Ivan, to this thoroughly adult figure.
“‘I’m afraid I’ll accidentally eat it all before I get there,’ I said, following the rule that you had to pretend to have this problem where you couldn’t resist chocolate.”
My major qualm with the novel is that it began to feel a bit long towards the end. This is pretty paradoxical because the entire novel is only just over 400 pages, but I started to feel at around the 250-page mark that it was crawling by. Maybe this is because not much happens and the novel seems to be more of a character study than a plot-driven story, but I found that as Selin becomes more involved with Ivan, her narration becomes less interesting and engaging. This is somewhat fitting because Selin discusses how she is beginning to lose her language and her ability to communicate the more she becomes invested in her “relationship” with Ivan, but it also made it harder to be invested in her, as a reader. I missed the wit and sarcasm that she articulates in the first half of the novel, and I found myself laughing much less as the novel went on. (Sidenote: I literally burst out laughing while reading the scenes when Selin is teaching her ESL student…and where were the moments like this in the last half of the novel? They felt non-existent!) By the end of the novel, I felt as though I was just plugging away, trying to turn the pages as fast as I could to get to the point where something would happen. Again, I realize that this is more of a character study, and I appreciate that, but I felt as though Selin’s distinct character was what was lacking in the latter half of the novel. The last 100 pages just felt like more of the same, and I guess I was craving some spark or insight, some profound statement that I don’t feel I ever really got.
All in all, though, I would highly recommend The Idiot to current or recently graduated college/university students because I believe they will relate easily to Selin’s character and be able to insert themselves into her experiences. There is no doubt that The Idiot is well-written and I look forward to reading whatever Batuman produces next, as well as delving into some of her non-fiction, which I have heard great things about.
❥❥❥❥(out of 5)
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