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The Idiot



Author: Elif Batuman
Publisher: Penguin Press
Publication date: 2017
Pages: 423
ISBN: 9781594205613
Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Synopsis: 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

--From WorldCat

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Cynthia's Review

I had mixed feelings about Elif Batuman’s coming of age novel, The Idiot. At first, I loathed it. I found the laundry list of “What I did at Yale” trite, boring, and mundane. I fell into two competing emotional states while trudging through the first half of this book.

Just as I was about to throw in the metaphorical hat, Batuman would say something profound about friendship and life. Each time this happened, it stopped me in my tracks and I’d reread the passage over and over just to make sure I hadn’t imagined the unanticipated philosophical weight.

Then at page 161, the story changed for me. Selin who has a crush on Ivan from Russian class, spend an awkward day together. As they watch the sunrise from Ivan’s room, Selin notices Ivan’s lamp. It’s the same lamp she has, and she likes the thought of them both sitting under a similar light. She mentions the identical room décor and Ivan says how he doesn’t like the lamp because it’s mass-produced. It was at this moment I identified with Selin and her relationship with Ivan. She liked the lamp and thought it both functional and pleasing to the eye. How it had been produced and its lack of uniqueness didn’t both her, after all, it’s just a lamp. That scene struck gold with me, and after that I made myself stop being such a snob about Batuman’s list of college activities and classes, and I settled into the characters.

Ivan is a senior who has a girlfriend but likes the attention he garners from Selin. They begin an email correspondence that is one of the most convoluted conversations in the English language. Selin chalks this up to Ivan being from Hungary and cultural differences. Svetlana, another student from Russian, strikes up a friendship of opposites with Selin. Herein lies the strength of their bond. Selin, who aspires to be a writer has trouble expressing herself while Svetlana has no trouble at all, and extends her ease with feelings to analyzing other’s emotional shortcomings. Peter, the Ph.D. student who runs a study abroad program is overanalytical and direct. Don’t use an idiom in a creative way in Pete’s presence, he’ll call you on the saying’s literal meaning and how you got it wrong.

The second half of The Idiot is a much different story from the first. The novel transitions from short passages of activities and classroom interaction to become more of a narrative. Selin, smitten with Ivan, but unsure how to proceed, goes to Hungary for the summer to teach English through a program run by Peter. Here she hopes to spend time with Ivan who will be home for the summer before going off to graduates school in California.

Selin stumbles gracefully through unforgettable Hungarian personalities and realizes she’d gone to Hungary to be near Ivan, who is not around. She begins to wonder about her folly when she realizes it’s not about Ivan, it’s about her, and she tries to enjoy herself.

I enjoyed the second half, and I looked forward to reading it. I also realized how necessary the first half is to the second. While Selin’s time in Hungary is the better part of the novel, it isn’t possible without the trudging through the Yale Daily Times. Part II can’t stand alone. We need the character development, the friendships, and the nonsensical email conversations. Without these aspects, the story falls apart.

As one who attended college at the birth of the internet, I appreciate the historical significance of The Idiot. I hadn’t thought about my college years regarding history, which makes me feel a little old. That aside, I sort of enjoyed The Idiot, or at least I think I did. The second half buffered the first which bored and irritated me, but I think that may have been the point. I’m not sure if I can recommend this novel. I think doing so might burn a bridge or two.

Renee's Review

Wow. I really need to break this review up into two parts. The novel shifted that drastically in style between the two sections.

Part One

In part one, Selin, an American of Turkish descent, goes to Harvard for her freshman year of school. There, she attends class, encounters odd behavior from her roommates, meets Ivan, a boy who fascinates her for reasons she cannot even understand, and in general, has a fairly run-of-the-mill college experience. The plot of the first half was not an issue for me. What was an issue was the style of writing.

The first half of this novel is one of the most disjointed things I have ever read in my life, and I was quite surprised it passed the editing process. There was little to no flow at all. The reader is treated to scene after scene after scene of Selin's days in college, with little to no connection between any of them. It was like reading a collection of very, very short stories that went nowhere. In some ways, this is more true to life - what is life except a series of events with no real "plot?" But as a novel, it was tedious and mind-numbing. Factoids were thrown out willy-nilly, with no rhyme or reason for including them. Characters were introduced for one sentence, and then forgotten entirely. Main characters interacted with each other - in a stilted manner - for paragraphs that abruptly ended as the new scenes were introduced. At times, the sense of disconnect was staggering. For instance, between a section of the book in which we see the main character wearing a "Gogolian coat" in the rain and separate section that included a discussion about a Turkish linguistic tense, there is a random sentence about Balzac. Just that - a weird sentence as an aside that had absolutely nothing to do with the preceding or following content. It gets its own section and everything, but is not helpful to the story in any way. I waited for this style of writing to pick up, thinking perhaps it was simply the beginning of the novel that was so jumbled. 100 pages later, it was still a series of random events. It took 150 pages for the "plot" to gain the actual semblance of a real plot, and even then it was still dodgy until part two.

Most of part one made me thoroughly annoyed, and likely not in the best of spirits to be non-judgmental with what I was reading from that point on. But here it goes, anyway...

Part Two

I do not want to give away too many plot points for this late in the novel, so I will just say that the writing sees a marked improvement in the second half. In this half of the book, Selin travels around Europe. The disjointed scene-jumbling gives way to full concepts that are played out - scenes flow less irregularly, and a fairly standard plot emerges. I enjoyed the descriptions Batuman used throughout. They managed to be unique and yet still gave a solid sense of what was meant ("Rows of white taxis gleamed in the dark like the Cheshire Cat's grin." Awesome - I really wish all of her writing was as brilliant as her similes and metaphors). I also honestly liked Selin, even though I could not always identify with her, and the other main characters were well-drawn even if their conversations were stilted at times.

However, there was quite a bit I did not care for about the book overall, even as it improved. Aside from the writing style that plagued the first half of the book, I was genuinely befuddled as to why Selin had a fixation on Ivan (this is brought up by more than one character, and never adequately answered). He spoke in riddles, emailed in yet more riddles, seemed entirely too pleased with his own intellect, and acted as though he was playing some incredibly long game that I had no interest in reading. Why was he so enticing? Even after finishing the book, I have no idea (That said, even if I did not understand Selin's interest in Ivan, her bewildered approach to dealing with the situation was very true to what a young adult would feel when faced with emotions of that kind). The last twenty pages were odd, as though Batuman was uncertain how to end the novel and just kept tacking on more and more things to talk about. At no point - even after reaching the second half - did I feel I was gaining very much by reading the book. I had a gamut of emotions that mostly ran from bored to aggravated with a few high points here and there. That ending? No spoilers, but what was the point? Perhaps there was no point, and that, annoyingly, was the point.

With a lot of tweaking, this could have been a brilliant novel. Assessing the differences between how language affects world view, demonstrating how different cultures interact with one another in mundane settings...this could have been a gold mine of interesting angles to read about. Instead, I was simply glad the experience was over.

"Boring and mundane" pretty well summarizes the first half of the book. You make a good point about part one being the basis for part two, but I was not sure how necessary a lot of part one was for the overall understanding of the novel. It is true that the character development that became key in the second half of the book progressed during the first half, but, to me, Batuman had too much excessive information included in part one. I would have preferred just a few chapters of the daily ins-and-outs of Selin's life and the people she met, followed by a more structured plot. Dedicating a full half of the book to this-happened-and-then-this-happened-and-then-this-happened made for a very irksome read. By the time the structured plot arrived, I was too annoyed to enjoy it as fully as I would have under other circumstances.

Allow me to clarify. Not all of the first part is necessary. Actually, very little is. I'd say all of the sections not dealing with Peter, Svetlana, Ivan, or roommates could be dropped. I'm thinking even Selin's high school friend who seem jealous of Ivan, but then nothing even comes from their friendship, should be cut. I can't even remember his name and I can't be bothered to try and find it.

I did a little digging into the pointless nature of The Idiot and found something enlightening. It appears the Batuman loves long, pointless novels, so she wrote one, and has now subjected countless readers to trudge through her word salad for 400 plus pages. I think the next time we choose books, we might have to go on more than the blurb. Maybe research the author just so we can steer clear of rambling, train of thought novels.

Crap, I think I'm more irritated now than I ever was while reading. I feel like I have reading PTSD. PTRD, post-traumatic reading disorder.

Can I just say that I love the term "word salad," and will be stealing that in the future?

Post-traumatic reading disorder - yes. I felt much the same way the more I thought about the novel. I originally was going to end my review with something to the effect of, "Maybe the self-titled "idiot" is not actually Selin, but the reader, due to the mind-numbing after-effects of slogging through this plotless novel," but thought perhaps I would be alone in feeling that way. Good to know that I am not being overly dramatic.

I also agree with doing research on the authors we read in the future. Just because Batuman loves novels with plots a la Ulysses by James Joyce, does not mean we need to subject ourselves to reading those kinds of books.

Please do. Take a little dressing, maybe some crutons, run with it.

The title, The Idiot , comes from the Fyodor Dostoyevsky novel of the same name. The title is an ironic reference to the novel's main character who everyone thinks is dumber than he really is. I saw Batuman's use of the title as a reflection the Selin's vision of herself from where she starts to where she ends up at the novel's conclusion. But I like your interpretation much better. At times I did feel like I was being duped into reading the ravings of a sadist, hellbent on torturing the reader.