I’m an idiot. I know this. I was even more of an idiot back in college and I don’t like being reminded of this fact. So I admit I was hesitant when I picked up a copy of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot. I feared the narrator Selin and I had too much in common for us to ever get along. Like Selin, I’d fallen for a man via email while in college. Like her, I’d gone on to teach English in another country. Like her, I was trying (“doomed”) to be a writer. Unlike her, I didn’t go to Harvard. We were off to a shaky start.
I wasn’t entirely wrong. In some ways, following a year in the life of Selin was like reliving the prime of my idiocy, the crème de la crème of my naivety.
It’s strange how much I enjoyed it.
The Idiot takes place in the nineties, at a time when one might ask, “What do we do with this, hang ourselves?” while holding up an Ethernet cable. This har-har brand of humor is one playful feature of Batuman’s writing. Someone remarks, “I don’t think Lucky Charms work.” Later Selin observes, “In the checkout line, we both noticed a magazine called Self. Ivan said he didn’t think they could tell him anything he didn’t already know.” They’re jokes you might receive in text form from your father. It’s charming at first, but too many and you might write back, “Dad, that’s enough.”
Selin is a Turkish-American student in her first year at Harvard. She is determined to understand how language works. She is more than a little entranced by the mysterious Ivan, an older math student from Hungary. The plot… simmers. They send a lot of emails. Selin signs up for classes with names like “Constructed Worlds.”
We seem to be watching Selin from a distance—of watching her watch the world as she struggles to make sense of her reality. Mostly, we watch her go about her day. One might be tempted to say this is a book where little happens, when in fact this is a book where a lot happens. For instance: A thing happens. Another thing happens. People eat cherries. They go to class. They buy books. They talk about them. They go on long, meandering walks down well-described streets.
Is it a street? What does “street” mean anyway? Selin wonders things like this. Soon, I wondered too.
I began reading The Idiot in March, shortly after its release date. At the time I was training to run a half-marathon in April. The half-marathon happened to fall on my thirty-first birthday. I believed running it would be a celebration of surviving another year, of my good health, and so on.
I read a few pages of The Idiot and then set out for a seven-miler. At this point I was still early on in the book. I had a lot of time to think about Selin on these long runs. I thought, “Everything is pointless and funny.” And it was, back then, in the book and in life. I came home from my run and made myself a sandwich.
Later that evening, my husband asked what I was reading. Or, more likely, there was no need for him to ask: I’d just finished a cocktail and decided to tell him.
“What’s it about?” he asked, or didn’t.
My husband reads science fiction. He likes stories where things happen.
I told him. I said, “A woman named Selin goes to Harvard and has feelings for a man. Later, she goes to Hungary to teach English.”
“Is that all?”
“She stops in Paris on the way,” I said. “She has a friend named Svetlana?”
I was grasping. I wanted to say it had something to do with desire and reality and language, but I couldn’t find the words.
What is a novel anyway? What is language? Was I drunk already from the one cocktail? My husband ordered a pizza. We turned on the television. We watched a show, and then another.
The Idiot is not a satisfying read. At times it feels like a bird’s eye view of the most boring parts of college—and of life. In my notes, I wrote, “Where’s the fucking?”
The fucking is in the language, and in Selin’s observations of the world. So much here is turned outward, which makes each touch of the physical all the more powerful. Like when Selin finally describes to Ivan how seeing him sometimes hurts her afterward. “It’s almost physically painful,” she says and then touches her sternum. By the time Selin and Ivan have this conversation it felt as intimate to me as sex.
I went on a ten-mile run. On the run, I thought about why I’d always preferred falling for a person via email. I think I always preferred falling for words over falling for a person. That words always somehow felt more intimate.
At one point, Svetlana says to Selin, “For you, language itself is a self-sufficient system.”
“But it is a self-sufficient system,” Selin remarks.
Earlier I said that I “enjoyed” this book. Maybe “enjoy” isn’t the right word. But what is?
Later that day, my husband pointed out that the bread I’d been eating all week was par-baked. I was supposed to have cooked it. Hadn’t I noticed? I hadn’t.
For Selin, nothing is as it seems. She is drawn to the absurd. She fails again and again to comprehend the world. These are by far my favorite parts of the book.
At a restaurant: “I found some words that I thought I recognized in each course, and told them to the waiter, who went away.” Later on, when the first course arrives: “I discovered that I had ordered a cantaloupe filled with port. Everyone else had ordered asparagus.”
Observing the contents of a refrigerator: “Two oblong root vegetables gleamed palely through a plastic drawer. Then Svetlana opened the drawer and we saw that they weren’t root vegetables at all, but enormous eggs.”
On her body, “At some point I thought I had grown a lump in my thigh, but it turned out to be a tangerine—it had fallen through a hole in the pocket and ended up trapped in the lining.”
Now you see it. Now you don’t.
Reading and running, I had the growing suspicion that Selin might be made up of words. She was two-dimensional, but I believed in her. I know her as Selin knows Ivan. We are all “dizzy from the sense of intimacy and remoteness.”
The following week, I took a step and felt an intense pain in my foot. A stress fracture. Lost in thought, I’d pushed my body beyond the scope of my ability. I wouldn’t be able to run the half-marathon after all.
That evening I sat down on the couch and finished The Idiot. Outside, trillium was beginning to bloom, a clear sign of spring. This isn’t a book I’d tell everyone to read—I told my husband not to—but it is a book I’ll carry with me. I watched as my foot swelled up like—of all things—a tangerine. What could I do? I went about my life. I did a thing. I did another thing. Occasionally, I thought of Selin.
Bethany Marcel is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Creative Nonfiction, The Review Review, Entropy, and The Nervous Breakdown, among others. She has been granted a residency from the Spring Creek Project. Find her on Twitter @bethmarcel.