The Idiotby Elif Batuman
—Miranda July, author of The First Bad Man and It Chooses You
“Easily the funniest book I’ve read this year.”
A portrait of the artist as a young woman. A novel about not just discovering but inventing/b>/i>/b>/i>/i>/i>
"An addictive, sprawling epic; I wolfed it down.”
—Miranda July, author of The First Bad Man and It Chooses You
“Easily the funniest book I’ve read this year.”
A portrait of the artist as a young woman. A novel about not just discovering but inventing oneself.
The year is 1995, and email is new. Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, arrives for her freshman year at Harvard. She signs up for classes in subjects she has never heard of, befriends her charismatic and worldly Serbian classmate, Svetlana, and, almost by accident, begins corresponding with Ivan, an older mathematics student from Hungary. Selin may have barely spoken to Ivan, but with each email they exchange, the act of writing seems to take on new and increasingly mysterious meanings.
At the end of the school year, Ivan goes to Budapest for the summer, and Selin heads to the Hungarian countryside, to teach English in a program run by one of Ivan's friends. On the way, she spends two weeks visiting Paris with Svetlana. Selin's summer in Europe does not resonate with anything she has previously heard about the typical experiences of American college students, or indeed of any other kinds of people. For Selin, this is a journey further inside herself: a coming to grips with the ineffable and exhilarating confusion of first love, and with the growing consciousness that she is doomed to become a writer.
With superlative emotional and intellectual sensitivity, mordant wit, and pitch-perfect style, Batuman dramatizes the uncertainty of life on the cusp of adulthood. Her prose is a rare and inimitable combination of tenderness and wisdom; its logic as natural and inscrutable as that of memory itself. The Idiot is a heroic yet self-effacing reckoning with the terror and joy of becoming a person in a world that is as intoxicating as it is disquieting. Batuman's fiction is unguarded against both life's affronts and its beauty--and has at its command the complete range of thinking and feeling which they entail.
The mysterious relationship between language and the world” is just one of the questions troubling Selin Karadag, the 18-year-old protagonist of Batuman’s (The Possessed) wonderful first novel, a bildungsroman Selin narrates with fluent wit and inexorable intelligence. Beginning her first year at Harvard in the fall of 1995, Selin is determined to “be a courageous person, uncowed by other people’s dumb opinions”; she already thinks of herself as a writer, although “this conviction was completely independent of having ever written anything.” In a Russian class, the Turkish-American Selin is befriended by the worldlier Svetlana, whose Serbian family has endowed her with capital and complexes, and the older Hungarian math major Ivan, who becomes Selin’s correspondent in an exciting new medium: email. Their late-night exchanges inspire Selin more than anything else in her life, but they frustrate her, too: Ivan’s intentions toward her are vague, perhaps even to himself. Traveling to Paris with Svetlana in the summer of 1996, Selin plans to continue on to Hungary, where she will teach English in a village school, and then to Turkey, where her extended family resides. Thus Batuman updates the grand tour travelogue just as she does the epistolary novel and the novel of ideas, in prose as deceptively light as it is ambitious. One character wonders whether it’s possible “to be sincere without sounding pretentious,” and this long-awaited and engrossing novel delivers a resounding yes. (Mar.)
“Masterly funny debut novel . . Erudite but never pretentious, The Idiot will make you crave more books by Batuman.” – Sloane Crosley, Vanity Fair
“Batuman has won a Paris Review Terry Southern Prize for humor, and her book is consistently hilarious. If this is a sentimental education, it’s one leavened by a great deal of mordant and delightful humor. . . . At once a cutting satire of academia, a fresh take on the epistolary novel, a poignant bildungsroman, and compelling travel literature, “The Idiot’’ is also a touching and spirited portrait of the artist as a hugely appealing young woman.”— Boston Globe
“The Idiot is an impressive debut with a ridiculous amount of charm and a protagonist so relatable she’s almost impossible to forget.”— A.V. Club
“A vibrant novel of ideas . . . Like her essays, Batuman’s bildungsroman is a succession of droll misadventures built around chance encounters, peculiar conversations and sharp-eyed observations. Both on campus and abroad, she brings the ever-fresh perspective of a perpetual stranger in a strange land. Her deceptively simple declarative sentences are underpinned by a poker-faced sense of absurdity and humor so dry it calls for olives.”— San Francisco Chronicle
“With her smart and deliciously comic 2010 debut, the essay collection “The Possessed,” Elif Batuman wrote one of the 21st century’s great love letters to reading . . . It was a tour de force intellectual comedy encasing an apologia for literary obsession . . . A different — though no less tenuous — variety of possession is explored in “The Idiot,” Batuman’s first novel . . . The book’s pleasures come not from the 400-page, low-and-slow smolder of its central relationship, which can at times feel like nothing more than two repressions circling one another; rather, it is Selin herself. Acutely self-conscious but fiercely intelligent, she consistently renders a strange, mordantly funny and precisely observed world . . . Selin’s is a consciousness one does not want to part with; by the end of the book, I felt as if I were in the presence of a strange, slightly detached, utterly brilliant friend. “I kept thinking about the uneven quality of time,” she writes, “the way it was almost always so empty, and then with no warning came a few days that felt so dense and alive and real that it seemed indisputable that that was what life was, that its real nature had finally been revealed.” Batuman articulates those little moments — of revelation and of emptiness — as well as anyone writing today. The book’s legacy seems destined to be one of observation, not character — though when the observer is this gifted, is that really any wonder?”-LA Times
“No one writes funnier or more stylishly about higher education. Nothing written about grad school is as entertaining as her 2010 collection of dispatches from Stanford's comparative-literature department, The Possessed, and her studied satire of Harvard in The Idiot is nearly its equal.”—Village Voice
“Batuman’s sardonic wit makes for a delectable unfolding of Selin’s experience of love, life and language.”—BBC.com
“The Idiot is half The Education of Henry Adams and half Innocents Abroad. Twain would have savored Selin's first international trip to Paris, Hungary and Turkey…Our first footsteps into adulthood are often memorable. Taking them in Selin's shoes is an entertaining, intellectual journey not to be missed."
— Shelf Awareness
“Selin is entrancing—so smart, so clueless, so funny—and Batuman’s exceptional discernment,
comedic brilliance, and soulful inquisitiveness generate a charmingly incisive and resonant tale of themessy forging of a self.”
— Booklist (starred review)
“Wonderful first novel . . . Batuman updates the grand tour travelogue just as she does the epistolary novel and the novel of ideas, in prose as deceptively light as it is ambitious. One character wonders whether it’s possible ‘to be sincere without sounding pretentious,’ and this long-awaited and engrossing novel delivers a resounding yes.”
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Selin is delightful company. She's smart enough to know the ways in which she is dumb, and her off-kilter relationship to the world around her is revelatory and, often, mordantly hilarious. Readers who are willing to travel with Selin at her own contemplative pace will be grateful that they did. Self-aware, cerebral, and delightful.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“Not since Don Quixote has a quest for love gone so hilariously and poignantly awry. In spare, unforgettable prose, Batuman the traveller (to Harvard, to mysterious Hungary) recreates for the reader the psychic state of being a child entering language. We marvel and tremble with her at the impossibility and mysterious necessity for human connection that both makes life worthwhile and yet so often strands us all in torment. This book is a bold, unforgettable, un-put-downable read by a new master stylist. Best novel I've read in years.”
—Mary Karr, author of The Art of Memoir, Lit, and The Liars’ Club
“I’m not Turkish, I don’t have a Serbian best friend, I’m not in love with a Hungarian, I don’t go to Harvard. Or do I? For one wonderful week, I got to be this worldly and brilliant, this young and clumsy and in love. The Idiot is a hilariously mundane immersion into a world that has never before received the 19th Century Novel treatment. An addictive, sprawling epic; I wolfed it down.”
—Miranda July, author of The First Bad Man and It Chooses You
“Elif Batuman’s novel not only captures the storms and mysteries and comedies of youth but, in its wonderfully sensitive portrait of a young woman adventuring across languages and cultures, it brilliantly draws to our attention a modern politics of friendship. This is a remarkable book.”
—Joseph O’Neill, author of The Dog and Netherland
“Elif Batuman surely has one of the best senses of humour in American letters. The pleasure she takes in observing the eccentricities of each of her characters makes for a really refreshing and unique bildungsroman: one more fascinated with what’s going on around and outside the bewildered protagonist, than what’s going on inside her.”
—Sheila Heti, author of How Should a Person Be? and Ticknor
In this semiautobiographical debut novel, New Yorker writer and National Book Critics Circle finalist Batuman delightfully captures the hyperstimulation and absurdity of the first-year university experience. The story is set in the early 1990s, when Selin, a first-generation Turkish American girl from New Jersey, is introduced simultaneously to both email and Harvard. In Russian 101, she makes friends with Svetlana, a worldly Serbian emigré, and falls for handsome Hungarian upperclassman Ivan. Ivan's affection is elusive—he already has a girlfriend—and their relationship consists primarily of a plaintive yet intellectual email correspondence while Ivan travels about exploring graduate schools. To see Ivan over the summer, Selin commits to teaching English in Hungary. The unfamiliar language gives rise to a succession of seemingly random but mild misadventures. Despite its allusive title, this work is more modern fiction than Russian novel. The narrative is highly detailed and determinedly linear (compare Karl Ove Knausgaard or Ben Lerner), while the voice is lighthearted and wry, with occasional laugh-out-loud zingers. VERDICT Most readers will enjoy. [See Prepub Alert, 9/12/16.]—Reba Leiding, emeritus, James Madison Univ. Lib., Harrisonburg, VA
A sweetly caustic first novel from a writer whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and n+1. It's fall 1995, and Selin is just starting her first year at Harvard. One of the first things she learns upon arriving at her new school is that she has an email account. Her address contains her last name, "Karada?, but all lowercase, and without the Turkish ?, which was silent." When presented with an Ethernet cable, she asks "What do we do with this, hang ourselves?" All of this occurs on the first page of Batuman's (The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, 2011) debut novel, and it tells us just about everything we need to know about the author's thematic concerns and style. Selin's closest friends at Harvard are Ralph, a ridiculously handsome young man with a Kennedy fetish, and Svetlana, a Serbian from Connecticut. Selin's first romantic entanglement—which begins via electronic mail—is with Ivan, a Hungarian mathematician she meets in Russian class. Selin studies linguistics and literature, teaches ESL, and spends a lot of time thinking about what language—and languages—can and cannot do. This isn't just bloodless philosophizing, though. Selin is, among other things, a young woman trying to figure out the same things young people are always trying to figure out. And, as it happens, Selin is delightful company. She's smart enough to know the ways in which she is dumb, and her off-kilter relationship to the world around her is revelatory and, often, mordantly hilarious. For example, this is how she describes a particular linguistics class: "we learned about people who had lost the ability to combine morphemes, after having their brains perforated by iron poles. Apparently there were several such people, who got iron poles stuck in their heads and lived to tell the tale—albeit without morphemes." Some readers may get impatient with the slow pace of the narrative, which feels more like a collection of connected microfictions than a traditional novel, but readers who are willing to travel with Selin at her own contemplative pace will be grateful that they did. Self-aware, cerebral, and delightful.
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Read an Excerpt
I didn’t know what email was until I got to college. I had heard of email, and knew that in some sense I would “have” it. “You’ll be so fancy,” said my mother’s sister, who had married a computer scientist, “sending your e . . . mails.” She emphasized the “e” and paused before “mail.”
That summer, I heard email mentioned with increasing frequency. “Things are changing so fast,” my father said. “Today at work I surfed the World Wide Web. One second, I was in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One second later, I was in Anıtkabir.” Anıtkabir, Atatürk’s mausoleum, was located in Ankara. I had no idea what my father was talking about, but I knew there was no meaningful sense in which he had been “in” Ankara that day, so I didn’t really pay attention.
On the first day of college, I stood in line behind a folding table and eventually received an email address and temporary password. The “address” had my last name in it—Karadağ, but all lowercase, and without the Turkish ğ, which was silent. From an early age I had understood that a silent g was funny. “The g is silent,” I would say in a weary voice, and it was always hilarious. I didn’t understand how the email address was an address, or what it was short for. “What do we do with this, hang ourselves?” I asked, holding up the Ethernet cable.
“You plug it into the wall,” said the girl behind the table.
Insofar as I’d had any idea about it at all, I had imagined that email would resemble faxing, and would involve a printer. But there was no printer. There was another world. You could access it from certain computers, which were scattered throughout the ordinary landscape, and looked no different from regular computers. Always there, unchanged, in a configuration nobody else could see, was 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. Some messages were formally epistolary, with “Dear” and “Sincerely”; others telegraphic, all in lowercase with missing punctuation, like they were being beamed straight from people’s brains. And each message contained the one that had come before, so your own words came back to you—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.
You had to wait in a lot of lines and collect a lot of printed materials, mostly instructions: how to respond to sexual harassment, report an eating disorder, register for student loans. They showed you a video about a recent college graduate who broke his leg and defaulted on his student loans, proving that the budget he drew up was no good: a good budget makes provisions for debilitating injury. The bank was a real bonanza, as far as lines and printed materials were concerned. They gave you a free dictionary. The dictionary didn’t include “ratatouille” or “Tasmanian devil.”
On the staircase approaching my room, I could hear tuneless singing and the slap of plastic slippers. My new roommate, Hannah, was standing on a chair, taping a sign that read Hannah Park’s Desk over her desk, chanting monotonously along with Blues Traveler on her Discman. When I came in, she turned in a pantomime of surprise, pitching to and fro, then jumped noisily to the floor and took off her headphones.
“Have you considered mime as a career?” I asked.
“Mime? No, my dear, I’m afraid my parents sent me to Harvard to become a surgeon, not a mime.” She blew her nose loudly. “Hey—my bank didn’t give me a dictionary!”
“It doesn’t have ‘Tasmanian devil,’ ” I said.
She took the dictionary from my hands, rifling the pages. “It has plenty of words.”
I told her she could have it. She put it on the shelf next to the dictionary she had gotten in high school, for being the valedictorian. “They look good together,” she said. I asked if her other dictionary had “Tasmanian devil.” It didn’t. “Isn’t the Tasmanian devil a cartoon character?” she asked, looking suspicious. I showed her the page in my other dictionary that had not just “Tasmanian devil,” but also “Tasmanian wolf,” with a picture of the wolf glancing, a bit sadly, over its left shoulder.
Hannah stood very close to me and stared at the page. Then she looked right and left and whispered hotly in my ear, “That music has been playing all day long.”
“Shhh—stand absolutely still.”
We stood absolutely still. Faint romantic strings drifted from under the door of our other roommate, Angela.
“It’s the sound track for The Last of the Mohicans,” whispered Hannah. “She’s been playing it all morning, since I got up. She’s just been sitting in there with the door shut, playing the tape over and over again. I knocked and asked her to turn it down but you can still hear it. I had to listen to my Discman to drown her out.”
“It’s not that loud,” I said.
“But it’s just weird that she sits there like that.”
Angela had gotten to our three-person, two-bedroom suite at seven the previous morning and taken the single bedroom, leaving Hannah and me to share the one with bunk beds. When I got there in the evening, I found Hannah storming around in a fury, moving furniture, sneezing, and shouting about Angela. “I never even saw her!” Hannah yelled from under her desk. She suddenly succeeded in detaching two things she had been pulling at, and banged her head. “OWW!” she yelled. She crawled out and pointed wrathfully at Angela’s desk. “These books? They’re fake!” She seized what looked like a stack of four leather-bound volumes, one with The Holy Bible printed on the spine, shook it under my nose, and slammed it down again. It was a wooden box. “What’s even in there?” She knocked on the Bible. “Her last testament?”
“Hannah, please be gentle with other people’s property,” said a soft voice, and I noticed two small Koreans, evidently Hannah’s parents, sitting in the window seat.
Angela came in. She had a sweet expression and was black, and was wearing a Harvard windbreaker and a Harvard backpack. Hannah immediately confronted her about the single room.
“Hmm, yeah,” Angela said. “It’s just I got here really early and I had so many suitcases.”
“I kind of noticed the suitcases,” said Hannah. She flung open the door to Angela’s room. A yellowed cloth and a garland of cloth roses had been draped over the one tiny window, and in the murk stood four or five human-sized suitcases.
I said maybe we could each have the single room for a third of the year, with Angela going first. Angela’s mother came in, dragging another suitcase. She stood in the doorway to Angela’s room. Her body filled the entire doorway. “It is what it is,” she said.
Hannah’s father stood up and took out a camera. “First college roommates! That’s an important relationship!” he said. He took several pictures of Hannah and me but none of Angela.
Hannah bought a refrigerator for the common room. She said I could use it if I bought something for the room, too, like a poster. I asked what kind of poster she had in mind.
“Psychedelic,” she said.
I didn’t know what a psychedelic poster was, so she showed me her psychedelic notebook. It had a fluorescent tie-dyed spiral, with purple lizards walking around the spiral and disappearing into the center.
“What if they don’t have that?” I asked.
“Then a photograph of Albert Einstein,” she said decisively, as if it were the obvious next choice.
“Yeah, one of those black-and-white pictures. You know: Einstein.”
The campus bookstore turned out to have a huge selection of Albert Einstein posters. There was Einstein at a blackboard, Einstein in a car, Einstein sticking out his tongue, Einstein smoking a pipe. I didn’t totally understand why we had to have an image of Einstein on the wall. But it was better than buying my own refrigerator.
The poster I got was no better or worse than the other Einstein posters in any way that I could see, but Hannah seemed to dislike it. “Hmm,” she said. “I think it’ll look good there.” She pointed to the space over my bookshelf.
“But then you can’t see it.”
“That’s okay. It goes best there.”
From that day on, everyone who happened by our room—neighbors wanting to borrow stuff, residential computer staff, student council candidates, all kinds of people to whom my small enthusiasms should have been a source of little or no concern—went out of their way to disabuse me of my great admiration for Albert Einstein. Einstein had invented the atomic bomb, abused dogs, neglected his children. “There were many greater geniuses than Einstein,” said a guy from down the hall, who had stopped by to borrow my copy of Dostoevsky’s The Double. “Alfred Nobel hated mathematics and didn’t give the Nobel Prize to any mathematicians. There were many who were more deserving.”
“Oh.” I handed him the book. “Well, see you around.”
“Thanks,” he said, glaring at the poster. “This is the man who beats his wife, forces her to solve his mathematical problems, to do the dirty work, and he denies her credit. And you put his picture on your wall.”
“Listen, leave me out of this,” I said. “It’s not really my poster. It’s a complicated situation.”
He wasn’t listening. “Einstein in this country is synonymous with genius, while many greater geniuses aren’t famous at all. Why is this? I am asking you.”
I sighed. “Maybe it’s because he’s really the best, and even jealous mudslingers can’t hide his star quality,” I said. “Nietzsche would say that such a great genius is entitled to beat his wife.”
That shut him up. After he left, I thought about taking down the poster. I wanted to be a courageous person, uncowed by other people’s dumb opinions. But what was the dumb opinion: thinking Einstein was so great, or thinking he was the worst? In the end, I left the poster up.
Hannah snored. Everything in the room that wasn’t a solid block of wood—the windowpanes, the bed girders, the mattress springs, my rib cage—vibrated in sympathy. It did no good to wake her up or roll her over. She just started again a minute later. If she was asleep, I was by definition awake, and vice versa.
I convinced Hannah that she had obstructive sleep apnea, which was depriving her brain cells of oxygen and compromising her chances of getting into a top-ten medical school. She went to the campus health center and came back with a box of adhesive strips that were supposed to prevent snoring by sticking to your nose. A photograph on the box showed a man and a woman gazing into the distance, wearing matching plastic nose strips, a breeze ruffling the woman’s hair.
Hannah pulled her nose up from the side, and I smoothed the strip in place with my thumbs. Her face felt so small and doll-like that I felt a wave of tenderness toward her. Then she started yelling about something, and the feeling passed. The nose strips actually worked, but they gave Hannah sinus headaches, so she stopped using them.
In the long days that stretched between even longer nights, I stumbled from room to room taking placement tests. You had to sit in a basement writing essays about whether it was better to be a Renaissance person or a specialist. There was a quantitative reasoning test full of melancholy word problems—“The graph models the hypothetical mass in grams of a broiler chicken up to eighty weeks of age”—and every evening was some big meeting where you sat on the floor and learned that you were now a little fish in a big sea, and were urged to view this circumstance as an exhilarating challenge rather than a source of anxiety. I tried not to give too much weight to the thing about the fish, but after a while it started to get me down anyway. It was hard to feel cheerful when someone kept telling you you were a little fish in a big sea.
My academic adviser, Carol, had a British accent and worked at the Office of Information Technologies. Twenty years ago, in the 1970s, she had received a master’s degree from Harvard in Old Norse. I knew that the Office of Information Technologies was where you mailed your telephone bill each month. Other than that, its sphere of activity was mysterious. How was Old Norse involved? On the subject of her work, Carol said only, “I wear many hats.”
Hannah and I both caught a terrible cold. We took turns buying cold medicine and knocked it back like shots from the little plastic cup.
When it came time to choose classes, everyone said it was of utmost importance to apply to freshman seminars, because otherwise it could be years before you had a chance to work with senior faculty. I applied to three literature seminars and got called in for one interview. I reported to the top floor of a cold white building, where I shivered for twenty minutes on a leather sofa under a skylight wondering if I was in the right place. There were some strange newspapers on the coffee table. That was the first time I saw the Times Literary Supplement. I couldn’t understand anything in the Times Literary Supplement.
A door opened and the professor called me in. He extended his hand—an enormous hand on an incredibly skinny, pale wrist, further dwarfed by a gigantic overcoat.
“I don’t think I should shake your hand,” I said. “I have this cold.” Then I had a violent fit of sneezing. The professor looked startled, but recovered quickly. “Gesundheit,” he said urbanely. “I’m sorry you aren’t feeling well. These first days of college can be rough on the immune system.”
“So I’m learning,” I said.
“Well, that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “Learning! Ha, ha.”
“Ha, ha,” I said.
“Well, let’s get down to business. From your application, you seem to be very creative. I enjoyed your creative application essay. My only concern is that you realize this seminar is an academic class, not a creative class.”
“Right,” I said, nodding energetically and trying to determine whether any of the rectangles in my peripheral vision was a box of tissues. Unfortunately, they were all books. The professor was talking about the differences between creative and academic writing. I kept nodding. I was thinking about the structural equivalences between a tissue box and a book: both consisted of slips of white paper in a cardboard case; yet—and this was ironic—there was very little functional equivalence, especially if the book wasn’t yours. These were the kinds of things I thought about all the time, even though they were neither pleasant nor useful. I had no idea what you were supposed to be thinking about.
Meet the Author
Elif Batuman has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2010. She is the author of The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. The recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award, and a Paris Review Terry Southern Prize for Humor, she also holds a PhD in comparative literature from Stanford University. The Idiot is her first novel. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.
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