Elif Batuman is on record as disliking "crisp" fiction, fiction that streamlines, that asks to be compared to apples, or whips. "Write long novels, pointless novels," she urges in an essay for n+1. And she has. The Idiot is a long wander, a vague rummage, "as simultaneously absorbing and off-putting as someone else's incredibly long dream," as her narrator, Selin, says of Bleak House.
Selin, in contrast, enters her freshman year at Harvard thinking it is possible to know what books really mean. "You could get the meaning, or you could miss it completely." The Idiot may not have a point, or a definite meaning that can be extracted and spirited away like the prize in a cereal box, but it is full of subtle, playful insight on communication, language, and the painful process of choosing an identity without falling into scripted roles.
"What do we do with this, hang ourselves?" Selin asks, presented with an Ethernet cable on her first day at Harvard. Well, kind of. The Internet is new, and Selin uses her cord to begin an email correspondence with Ivan, the designated "love interest" of her story. When Ivan goes home to Hungary for the summer, she follows, signing up to teach English in a Hungarian village.
Ivan is blandly unappealing, in part because those parts of the book are written in the tone of wry and affectionate, but bewildered, retrospect we reserve for our youthful awful taste in partners. But many of the people in the book remain flat, while inanimate objects take on golden, gorgeous warmth. Like a croissant, "crisp and soft and flaky at the same time. Just biting it made you feel cared for." Or a room, with "great acoustics, liquid and precise." Or a train, "rumbling closer, bringing the feeling of aliveness and plenitude brought by incoming trains." You want to eat the croissant, enter the room, ride the train — they all sound like some clean, enveloping, thrilling idea of love. Reading The Idiot, I always forgot to care about Ivan. But I've eaten three croissants in three days.
Objects are comprehensible — they don't talk back. But communication with people, at least for Selin, is painful and fraught. Not only must you understand someone else, you have to be something specific and convincing yourself – all at the same time! When Selin visits the Louvre, her friend asks which portrait she most identifies with. She points to a picture of some furniture.
Teenage pretention, unlike its later incarnations, has always seemed to me to be a kind of thrilling, experimental optimism: Is this who I could be? The Idiot is full of that wonderful, embarrassing kind of early pretention that consists of trying on roles like coats. (Selin buys a coat because it reminds her of Gogol).
Selin sees the world as a novel, in terms of roles, and plots. "I wanted to know how it was going to turn out, like flipping ahead in a book," she writes. "I didn't even know what kind of story it was, or what kind of role I was supposed to be playing." Ivan, she knows, is the "love interest." But who is she? She has lines, she knows, but they're so hard to remember.
When Ivan sees a moth in her room, he says, "You probably don't want me to kill it." He knows her role is squeamish feminine moth savior. "Go right ahead," she says. I loved these moments, when Batuman lays bare the script we follow without thinking about it. "I'm afraid I'll accidentally eat it all before I get there," Selin says of chocolate, adding that she was "following the rule that you had to pretend to have this problem where you couldn't resist chocolate." The effect is to estrange us from our culture, and make us see it as if from space.
The Idiot encapsulates those years of humiliating, but vibrant, confusion the come in your late teens, a confusion that's not even sexual, but existential and practical: Where do people get their opinions from? "How did you separate where someone was from, from who they were?" How do I "dispose of my body in space and time, every minute of every day, for the rest of my life?"
"I was surrounded," Selin says, "overwhelmed, by things of unknown or dubious meaning, things that weren't commensurate to me in any way."
The Idiot replicates the feeling of those years when stories don't seem to match up with lived experience and it's not clear if it's your fault or the world's. Like that time, The Idiot is both boring and strangely intense, fraught and apparently meaningless, confusing and inevitable, endless — and over in a moment.