This novel by Elif Batuman is a very skillfully written novel that I wanted to end much more quickly that it did. In fact, it’s because it’s so skillfully written than I wanted it to end. It was an extremely accurate depiction of what it feels like to be the sort of person who lives in your own head during those years of early adulthood when you (and everyone around you) is still figuring out how to be. As such, I found it very uncomfortable to read. Too familiar. Evocative of a time I don’t much want to relive and of the kinds of relationships I definitely don’t want to revisit.
The main character of The Idiot is Selin, a first-year student at Harvard. It’s 1995, and every student is issued an email account—for many, it is their first email account. For Selin, this e-mail account is a vehicle to a relationship that exists in the world and out of the world. It begins when, almost on impulse, she writes to a senior named Ivan. She’s met him a few times and finds him intriguing. He responds, and the two of them begin a correspondence that is a little bit jokey and a little bit earnest and mostly separate from their daily lives.
Selin is studying linguistics, and she applies a lot of what she’s learning about language and literature to her emails with Ivan:
I read Ivan’s messages over and over, thinking about what they meant. I felt ashamed, but why? Why was it more honorable to reread and interpret a novel like Lost Illusions than to reread and interpret some email from Ivan? Was it because Ivan wasn’t as good a writer as Balzac? (But I thought Ivan was a good writer.) Was it because Balzac’s novels had been read and analyzed by hundreds of professors, so that reading and interpreting Balzac was like participating in a conversation with all these professors, and was therefore a higher and more meaningful activity than reading an email only I could see? But the fact that the email had been written specifically to me, in response to things I had said, made it literally a conversation, in the way that Balzac’s novels—written for a general audience, ultimately in order to turn a profit for the printing industry—were not; and so wasn’t what I was doing in a way more authentic, and more human?
Of course, real life, made up of multiple people, each existing in their own story that they shape a they go along, is messier than a novel, which is crafted by one person and has a defined beginning, middle, and end. Selin and Ivan are making their relationship together, and it has more than one beginning and more than one ending, and it’s never clear whether an ending is really an ending. Selin’s desire to bring a pattern and meaning to it, however, is understandable, and her anguished attempt to analyze every word they exchange and every moment they end up spending together is all too familiar to anyone who’s been in a relationship that couldn’t be easily defined.
The book, however, isn’t just about an uncomfortably ambiguous relationship, even though that relationship is where the plot, such as it is, tends to be centered. Selin spends a lot of time with other people, including a friend named Svetlana whose personality at times seems to overwhelm Selin. And she goes to classes and volunteers to teach at a local community center because it seems like a good thing to do. Everything is new, and everything is an experiment. It’s exciting and terrifying all at once. There’s a lot of quiet flailing as Selin drifts from one situation to another. There are stakes, but they aren’t particularly high, and the book was frustratingly plotless at times. I liked it, even though I really was ready for it to end. That’s about how I felt about college, too, so Batuman gets that right.