Elif Batuman seems to be making a career for herself writing about academia under the titular auspices of Dostoyevsky novels. Her first book, a collection of essays called The Possessed, is part campus memoir, part comic ode to Russian literature. Its through-line arrives as a kind of call to action: this is the sort of novel American authors could write, but aren’t. Now, with The Idiot, Batuman has gone and written one herself. The result is an uproarious debut that funnels her same academic wit and intellectual earnestness into the overactive mind of Selin, a linguistics-obsessed Harvard freshman who arrives on campus in the fall of 1995.
Selin’s modus operandi is bewilderment. Freshman year is one extended, exegetical quagmire, and she moves through Harvard yard in a state of perpetual surprise, like a social scientist let loose in a Martian land. There are many things to be naive about: Fellini, Germans, email. “What are we supposed to do with this,” she says, upon being issued an Ethernet cable at orientation, “hang ourselves?” Her internal, astonished analysis yields unintentional and unpretentious insights, making her the perfect vessel for Batuman’s brand of academic comedy. Those with a literary sense of humor will appreciate the way Selin takes an almost personal offense to Balzac, Dostoyevsky, and Huysmans, exponent of the French school of art for art’s sake: “I thought maybe Against Nature would be a book about someone who viewed things the way I did—someone trying to live a life unmarred by laziness, cowardice, and conformity. I was wrong; it was more a book about interior decoration.” Her observations arrive in the moment, before she can correct her mistakes: “At some point,” she says during a nine-hour documentary about the Holocaust, part of an assignment for a seminar in nonfiction film, “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 my pocket and gotten trapped in the lining.” (The lining of her “Gogolian” overcoat, that is.) Moments of awkwardness with love-interest Ivan take on an almost slapstick quality, and I dare you not to laugh out loud at the literal and figurative obstacles Selin encounters on a romantic stroll:
To truly appreciate the narrative urgency of Selin’s story, one needs to feel, like Batuman, that academic inquiry can be as compelling as a detective story. For The Idiot is, “a kind of detective investigation of the mystery of literary structures,” to borrow the description Nabokov gave to his lectures on literature, delivered at Wellesley and Cornell. In this vein, Batuman has seeded her novel with the intrigue of competing views. Selin finds an intellectual foil in her more put-together best friend, Svetlana, someone who “subscribed to rules and systems, who wrote things in the designated spaces, and saw herself as the inheritor of centuries of human history and responsibilities.” Selin, by contrast, is the astonished modernist, an aesthete of the highest order—though more with respect to the effects of language than interior decoration. “Already,” Selin reflects, “we were comparing to see whose way of doing things was better.”
Part of what’s at stake in this experiment is the “relationship between language and the world.” Selin arrives on campus rooting for the potentials of human communication and the free exchange of ideas, only to become disillusioned by her and her peers’ failure to make themselves understood. When a professor of the nineteenth-century novel cannot understand the questions students ask him, not even when the class resorts to wild gesticulations, Selin absorbs her disappointment with deadpan stoicism: “This breakdown in communication was deeply depressing to me.” None-to-adept at conversation to begin with, she starts to give up on real-time communication and language-mediated intimacy, retreating instead into the study of grammar, syntax, and words themselves.
In a way, everyone in this novel is an experiment to someone else. Selin is both bewildered and bewildering, and both Ivan and Svetlana, her two closest acquaintances, take an interest in her as a sort of alien specimen. Svetlana is often remarking that Selin is the only person she knows who would come to Paris on such short notice or imagine Euclid’s reaction to having a Boston T stop named after him or go all the way to Hungary just to be near Ivan and then forget to call him. Ivan, for his part, treats Selin like a challenging text worthy of further analysis. “You remind me a little bit of Shakespeare,” he says, not entirely insincerely. Selin doesn’t drink, doesn’t talk, doesn’t call. Even her own mother is surprised to find that she isn’t interested in having sex (perhaps Selin’s Dr. Seuss pajamas are to partially blame). What does she do instead? She thinks, she writes, she stews—over agglutinative syntax and the Turkish inferential tense, which, like Selin, has a “built-in bewilderment, it was automatically funny.”
Some will—and have—complained that The Idiot suffers from narrative stasis, by which reviewers usually mean that “nothing happens” or “there is no plot.” The early drama of the book is circumscribed by concerns about academic scheduling, paperwork, choosing Russian names (Selin settles for ‘Sonya’), and readers might be forgiven for becoming impatient with the first hundred pages, which cycle through headlines torn from Selin’s internal reportage: “I signed up for a class called Constructed Worlds…I signed up for beginning Russian…I won four pounds of cashews in a raffle.” (If by this point you don’t feel that this is going to be a very funny book, it probably isn’t right for you.) Though the book borrows its title from Dostoyevsky, the epigraph is from Proust, suggesting that this comic bildungsroman is an exercise in interiority, comfortable with narrative lag and essayistic excess.
The Idiot picks up considerable narrative momentum, however, when its protagonist begins to fall in love. Toward the end of her first semester, Selin initiates an email exchange with Ivan, a senior mathematics major with ideas about the “German sense of order.” They trade intellectually intimate messages in the “important, delicate” hours of the very early morning, corresponding in an insular, private language of inside jokes and indirect allusions to a mutual infatuation. Ivan’s messages warrant as many rereadings as Balzac, and the attraction Selin feels seems to be more for the thrill of language and exegesis than the meaning these late-night epistolaries create. Their messages are so encrypted, so close to unfiltered private thought, that not even Selin and Ivan can always understand what the other is saying. “I understand maybe one-third of what you write, and probably vice versa,” Ivan writes. Though Batuman refers her protagonist’s tribulations again and again to Anna Karenina, another model might have been Russian formalist Victor Shklovsky’s novel Letters Not About Love: “Writing about love is forbidden,” Shklovsky writes to Alya, “so I’ll write about Zinovey Isaevich Grzhebin, the publisher. That ought to be sufficiently remote.” Selin could very well have penned this kind of obscurantist snippet herself.
Ultimately Selin’s ideas about the “self-sufficiency” of language are not enough to satisfy the human appetite for sexual and emotional intimacy, a longing that Selin registers as an “almost physical pain.” Selin is in possession of a great deal of knowledge—not every nineteen-year-old is versed in the shared agglutinative syntaxes common to Turkish and Hungarian—but it’s rarely the right kind of knowledge, the right kind of intelligence, which is to say, the kind that would allow her to satisfy a human hunger for intimacy. Indeed, the more Selin learns about linguistics and the philosophy of language, the less she seems to understand about the people around her: “There was no way to go through life, in Turkish or any other language, making only factual statements about direct observations,” Selin laments. Instead, we are bound by the inferential tense, forever qualifying truth claims with “it seems” or “it appears,” “just by existing in relation to other people.” To a Bertrand Russell or a Wittgenstein, this conclusion is distressing because it precludes the idea of objective truth; and to a Chomsky because it precludes universal thought. Selin is less bothered by the fragility of objectivity (“Truth is okay,” she says), but language’s limitation is still devastating for the reason that it prevents an intimacy predicated on wordplay and interpretation alone. “They had let me down,” she says of the philosophy and psychology of linguistics. Language, as it turns out, is like water—necessary for survival and yet no substitute for the real sustenance of life. The end of the novel deposits Selin at the brink of this important realization: she’ll have to go through the messy business of being in the world after all. Batuman is at the forefront of a debate over whether literature—and especially American literature—can still be produced in the crucible of privilege and bourgeois comfort that has long been the novelist’s domain. It’s a debate she helped to start. Her disdain for the MFA and the contemporary American short story has been well documented in a series of polemics published in n+1, London Review of Books, and The Possessed, which opens with an explanation of why she chose to pursue a PhD in literature over creative writing. But Batuman’s frustration with “program fiction” might just as easily be described as a sort of exhausted defense of “literature” over “fiction” that mirrors Selin’s own disappointment in her peers: “Why were we so bad at writing stories?” she wonders when, to her surprise, she wins the freshman literary contest. “When would we get better?” MFA programs, Batuman feels, are likewise generative of fiction rather than literature—even worse, of guilt-fiction, a further debasement of the literary form that, to her reading, openly apologizes for the fact that writing is an inherently useless, elitist, and impractical pursuit dominated, for at least the past few centuries, by white men. She awards no extra points for contrition, instead suggesting that there is a great difference between socio-political guilt and actual shame, and that the latter is the proper domain of literature. Shame is what Selin feels when she sets out to write a story worthy of a titular allusion to Camus’s The Plague but knows in her heart she has failed, even though her efforts are rewarded with publication in the campus literary magazine. Shame is what the writer ought to feel when she sets out to write literature and ends up with something less—for instance, “program fiction.”
Certainly The Idiot is self-conscious of these twenty-first-century stakes for writers of fiction and literature alike. Far from apologizing for writing in an elitist tradition (the novel takes place at Harvard, after all), Batuman bolsters her project with allusions to the formal evolution of the Western novel, not unlike the way academics defend claims by citing accredited peers. Potential answers to the age-old questions of novelistic form float by like ads for outfits the American novel might try on for size: The Idiot is a campus novel, a satire, an epistolary romance. Frequent allusions to Tolstoy and Dickens are suggestive of a casual flirtation with nineteenth-century Russian realism and the social novel, and to think of Selin’s freshman experience at Harvard as a historical epic or a social-protest novel becomes both especially funny and especially poignant when we realize that the “social problem” here is the perennial impossibility of conducting a conversation with the person you love, and the “historicized moment” the rise of the Internet. But why couldn’t these problems, this era, still be the stuff of literature? Selin’s struggles are outrageously frivolous compared to concerns like war and peace, yet commensurable with the frivolity of Proust. Is it really such a stretch to suggest that the challenge of intimacy, the failures of communication, and the rise of the Internet are among the defining conflicts of our times?
If Selin has learned nothing by the end of her freshman year, the twenty-first-century novelist, by contrast, will find much by way of instruction in Batuman’s debut. The Idiot provides a flawed but promising model for what the new American “literature” might look like. While many readers and reviewers—not to mention most of Selin’s acquaintances—are bound to find her sexual inertia and exegetical wheel-spinning maddening, Batuman has succeeded in renovating the psychological novel and the coming-of-age story. There’s little of the new (email, Chomsky, Awesome Blossoms) and a lot of the old, for Batuman has stolen from Proust her narrative arc—an aspiring writer who falls into a luckless, sexless, adolescent love while awaiting her literary subject (i.e., the very romance we’re reading now)—and from Dostoyevsky her form, the novel-length thought experiment. It is just as telling, perhaps, to notice what parts of the literary tradition Batuman leaves out. Far from the sexual machismo and intellectual pretentiousness of the Great American novels of the twentieth century, produced by your Bellows, Hemingways, Salters, and Roths, Batuman has seated her project in the overly analytical mind of an intelligent, bewildered, and celibate young girl. “It’s not so long ago,” Selin admits, “that I was a little girl.”