What I read last week: The Idiot, Elif Batuman, Penguin Press, 2017
File under: Literary Fiction
Why I read it: I enjoyed Batuman’s previous book, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. I’m a sucker for nods to Dostoevsky.
What it’s about: Set in Harvard around 1995, the book chronicles the freshman year of Selin as she attempts to adjust to college life. Selin develops a crush on Ivan, an older student, and much of the novel revolves around their almost relationship. The second half of the book follows Selin’s travels over the summer as she spends a few weeks in Paris, teaches English in Hungary for a month, then meets up with her family in Turkey.
Highlights: In the character of Selin, Batuman skillfully presents an awkwardly intellectual freshman struggling to find her identity and place in the world. Selin has a tendency to see artificiality in the society around her and pops its pretensions with zingers, mostly in her internal monologue (the story is told from her point of view). This ability leaves her isolated and adrift. Unable to find a cohesive understanding of her experience, she floats though her story unsure of where or what to do, capturing the age and circumstances of many a first year college student expertly. How much you enjoy this character will depend a lot on how like her you are. I found myself laughing not just at her but how she embodied elements of me at that age.
The first half of the novel gently mocks a great deal of academia. Anyone whose take an art, language, or literature class with an overly serious, self-infatuated professor will find much to enjoy here. Her presentation of language classes, including a fake textbook, is also quite funny. There are some interesting ideas explored in the book, particularly how language forms our perception of the world, and how it shapes the way we turn random experiences to life stories.
Downsides: I loved the first 150 pages of this book. When I hit 200 pages and realized there were 224 remaining, I became concerned. For every good line that made me laugh or smile, I had to slog through a paragraph or two of brain curdling tedium. There are far too many scenes in which Selin walks down the street, or goes to class, or boards a train, while giving us extensive observations of the people and places around her. This usually involves a clever sentence or two, but the payoff per line of text is small. These scenes may be included to show how much of what we observe is truly superfluous to our understanding of ourselves. It may be a nod to 19th century Russian novels – which the text mimics in a number of ways. Whatever the larger purpose was, my eyes still glazed over and my head buzzed with irritation far too many times.
There are reoccurring items and motifs. The color yellow or strawberries or some other random thing will appear and reappear in disconnected scenes. This may be a statement about the human tendency to attaching meaning to random events in an attempt to create meaning. It’s clever but there’s far too much of this. It brings the novel dangerously close to the type of literary fiction that seems to scream at you in red letters, “Bow down and worship at the altar of my awesome self-awareness.”
I enjoyed the nods to Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Particularly the honesty and naiveté shared by the protagonists of both and the way these characters critique their societies. Unlike Prince Myshkin, hero of The Idiot, Selin’s dialogue is mostly internal so she causes fewer disturbances and suffers less embarrassment, but seems equally isolated. This gets too meta when Selin starts discussing the works of Dostoevsky and states that she doesn’t like them because “[Dostoevsky] invents these supposedly complicated problems and then gets so worked up about them – like it’s hell, it’s intolerable humiliation, it’s the mathematically highest point of abasement. But to me, none of those things seem particularly hellish or humiliating or complicated.” It’s a critique that could be made of this novel – 424 pages devoted to a freshman in love with a senior who doesn’t share her feelings. This is the sort of thing I found amusing early on, became fatigued by half way though, and wanted to pound my head against the wall over in the last fourth.
Who should read this: Fans of literary fiction, particularly Russian literature. Anyone who had an awkward first year of college due to overly intellectual detachment from other people or who had some kind of existential crisis.
Who shouldn’t read it: To enjoy this, you need to be the kind of person who gets a kick out of a well-constructed sentence. An interest in larger philosophical or linguistic questions will also get you through. Without that, the plot and character elements of this probably aren’t going to hold your interest.
If you don’t read this: Batum’s first book, The Possessed, a memoir of her studies of Russian literature in graduate school and her experiences teaching English abroad, is less ambitious and less unevenly written.
Stars: 3 out of 5