I have just finished reading The Idiot by Elif Batuman, and realise that, for a change, I have something to say about a contemporary novel in English. Not that I read many, and finish far fewer, especially since devouring Pierre Bayard’s excellent How to talk about books you haven’t read. Why would one bother? But I had read various of Batuman’s essays and decided to give The Idiot a swirl, despite its somewhat daunting bulk.
Batuman writes very well, and has a rather particular sense of humour (or rather, humor) – or perhaps it isn’t a sense of humour in any conventional sense, but just the way she reads the world. This is a nicety of her style, and of the narrator, Selin’s, personality. Like Elif, Selin is an American of Turkish parentage who attends university in the late 1990s and encounters the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which teaches (broadly speaking) that perception is to a large extent defined by the language one speaks. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis actually explains a lot of what the book does, as Selin negotiates the tricky terrain of learning, infatuation (wonderfully muted and neurotic) and travel.
The story begins with Selin’s discovery, as a teenager, of the internet and the possibility of receiving emails: ‘Insofar as I’d had any idea about it at all, I had imagined that email would resemble faxing, and would involve a printer. But there was no printer. There was another world.’ Now I cannot even remember when I first encountered email, no doubt at the university where I worked (and still work); but I do remember how these messages seemed to emerge from a distinct or parallel world, and were significantly different in style and register from other forms of communication. Many – from people you knew – were like letters with their hair let down, and were generally composed with an absence of upper case letters. Batuman, who is a lot younger than me, remembers perfectly:
‘You could access it [the other world] from certain computers, which were scattered throughout the ordinary landscape, and looked no different from regular computers . . . Some messages were formally epistolary, with “Dear” and “Sincerely”; others were telegraphic, all in lower case with missing punctuation, like they were being beamed straight from people’s brains. And each message contained the one that had come before, so your own words came back to you – all the words you threw out, they came back. It was like the story of your relations with others, the story of the intersection of your life with other lives, was constantly being recorded and updated, and you could check it at any time.’
How clever is that ‘all the words you threw out, they came back’! Is that not the absolute essence (and horror) of email? But not only your own words; the endless deluge of other people’s (and institutions’) words emanating from this other world that can seemingly never be stanched or silenced . . .
Batuman’s range of registers is not extensive, and she is not an experimental writer in any conventional sense, but in the way she approaches her subject matter indirectly – at a slant to the universe – she manages to incite curiosity about the world like few other contemporary writers. Consider this passage, which occurs quite late in the book:
‘It was cold for swimming, but there were two people in the water: a barrel-chested man and a tiny little girl in a blue bikini. The girl was almost exploding with delight. The man stood awkwardly, like the first guest at a party, shifting his weight in the knee-deep water and rubbing his arms. Then he squatted so that only his head stuck out of the water. Then he vanished altogether, reappearing nearly a minute later with a perplexed expression. The girl clapped and shrieked, turned the man around by his shoulders, and climbed onto his back. The man stood up, his torso plastered with leaves. Overwhelmed by happiness, the girl began to sing. She was so happy – but she didn’t know what anything really was. She didn’t know what anything meant. She knew even less than we did.’
Notice how the narrator doesn’t say of the tiny singing girl that ‘she knew nothing’, but rather ‘she didn’t know what anything really was.’ This is a pointer towards the way Elif Batuman unpacks the world for her readers, not stating the expected, or at least not using linguistic constructions that are at once familiar or complacent. She prefers to present the girl’s ignorance, her ‘not knowing what anything [really] was’ almost as a threat, or an accident waiting to happen. And not only to her, the girl, but to the rest of us – whoever ‘we’ are. As though through ‘our’ ignorance we too might allow ourselves to be ‘overwhelmed by happiness’. With a fine tuning to différance the writer manages to do something quite unusual: exhibit her own bewilderment at the world in a manner at once subtle and strange. This trait is manifested early in the book when Selin is attending her first lecture as a freshman at Harvard:
‘The professor was talking about the difference between creative and academic writing. I kept nodding. I was thinking about the structural equivalences between a tissue box and a book: both consisted of slips of white paper in a cardboard case; yet – and this was ironic – there was very little structural equivalence, especially if the book wasn’t yours. These were the kinds of things I thought about all the time, even though they were neither pleasant nor useful. I had no idea what you were supposed to be thinking about.’
Selin is amazed by the way her friend, Svetlana, has so many opinions on things – how everything that happens, in fact, provokes some kind of intellectual reaction. She, by contrast ‘went from class to class, read hundreds, thousands of pages of the distilled ideas of the great thinkers of human history, and nothing happened.’ She is reminded of Olenka, the protagonist of Chekhov’s story, ‘The Darling’:
‘She saw objects round her and understood everything that was going on, but she could not form opinions about anything and did not know what to talk about. How awful it is not to have an opinion! You see a bottle, for example, standing there, or the rain falling, or a peasant going along in his cart, but what the bottle or rain or peasant are for, what sense they make, you can’t say and couldn’t say, even if they offered you a thousand roubles.’ (47)
In many ways, this is a classic coming of age novel, but with significant differences. Ivan, a Hungarian mathematician Selin meets at Harvard, fulfils the role of love interest with as much awkwardness as Selin herself engages in the student activities which her peers perform unthinkingly: drinking large quantities of beer, for instance, holds no appeal for her. Her experiences as an EFL teacher in rural Hungary, to which she has travelled over the summer in vague pursuit of Ivan, might come across to some readers as anti-climactic, and it’s true that the plot, such as it is, drifts somewhat. But that isn’t what you read a book like The Idiot for. It is to be read for the skill of the writing and for the sharp and funny insights about growing up in a world that makes very little sense.