Relive Your College Years With This Thoughtful, Hilarious Novel

"The Idiot" immerses readers in a Harvard student’s thwarted, anxiety-filled freshman year.
Penguin Press

During the first winter of Selin Karadağ’s undergraduate career at Harvard, she’s walking through campus with her friend Svetlana when she runs into a linguistics classmate. “‘Hey Selin, how’s it going,’ he said. I paused to reply. Svetlana also had to stop walking, and so did the guy. None of us could go until I said something. But I thought and thought, and couldn’t think of what to say.”

Finally, she just continues walking, without ever saying anything. Baffled, Svetlana asks why she never said anything. “I couldn’t think of an answer,” Selin responds. Svetlana stares at her, then points out, “’How’s it going’ isn’t a question. It’s not like he actually cares how it’s going.” “I know,” Selin says.

Selin is paralyzed by this revelation, not liberated. “Something basic about language had started to escape me,” she muses. Basic or not, there’s something terrifyingly paradoxical about “How’s it going.” It’s a question, but also not. How do you respond to something that seems to simultaneously demand several responses and no response at all?

I’m 10 years older than Selin is in Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, but this basic aspect of exchanging greetings continues to overwhelm me. When people say “How’s it going” to me in passing, I silently panic or hastily spit out, “Goodhowareyou?” By the time I’ve gotten it out, the other person is usually 10 feet past me already.

Most of the narrative action in The Idiot is purely mental, rising and falling with the internal fits of heartbreak, social anxiety, identity crisis, insecurity and frustration that churn below the surface. Selin, a Turkish-American student, starts at Harvard in the 1990s, unclear on what her next step will be. She signs up for linguistics classes, hoping to understand what language is for and the laws that govern it. She befriends Svetlana, a gregarious Serbian classmate, and Ralph, a handsome pre-med student. She takes Russian, a daily class where her reality blends with the surreality of the bizarre Russian-language stories they study.

In Russian class, Selin meets Ivan, a Hungarian mathematics student. He’s a senior and has a girlfriend ― maybe, sort of ― but he and Selin share a mutual fascination that is expressed primarily via email. In late-night missives, the two monologue to each other about free will, their dreams, the “triviality of conversations,” linguistics and computer science and math. She falls painfully in love with the person who writes the emails; he seems to feel the same way, but resists moving further. Asking why he doesn’t want to talk in person, she writes, “I don’t understand why it will trivialize these letters to say hi, or to actually talk to each other. You say you’re not in the mood for insignificant subtleties. But insignificant subtleties are the only difference between something special, and a huge pile of garbage floating through space.”

Once initiated, however, their in-person relationship consists of infrequent meetings, stilted conversations and confusion. She signs up to teach English in rural Hungary over the summer break in order to see more of him after he graduates, before he moves out west for graduate school. While there, she mostly teaches English to rural Hungarians, hangs out with her host families, and tries to pick up some Hungarian herself. The thorniness of language only seems more tangled and impenetrable the more she learns about it, and the more she learns of other languages.

For someone who spent four years at a liberal arts college studying language in some form, Selin’s neurotic crises feel vividly familiar. Batuman wittily and wisely captures the tribulations of a shy, cerebral teenager struggling with love, friendship, and whether to take psycholinguistics or philosophy of language. Where many fictional depictions of young women show them exploring their sexuality and navigating romance, Selin is the rare heroine who’s too diffident to act on her sexual feelings toward Ivan, or to even confront him about his ambiguous status with his girlfriend, Eunice.

The story of The Idiot is that things don’t happen. Different forms of Chekhov’s gun appear and disappear from stage ― Selin’s crush on Ivan which is never really consummated, Ivan’s girlfriend whose role in his life never really becomes clear, Svetlana’s odd but unexplained flirtation with her high school friend’s boyfriend. Meanwhile, Selin continues to examine language for meaning, whether the language of Ivan’s emails, her own thoughts, or the Hungarian phrases she learns from her students.

This meandering approach to a novel can chafe. Memories of my own college days of nerdy unrequited love and intellectual insecurity make Selin’s story engrossing to me, but for those whose life took a different path, the internal monologue of a Harvard student in the ‘90s might seem precious and trivial. With so little action, much depends on the characters, yet Selin is the only one who seems fully realized by the end of the novel. In large part, the book seems like a series of narrative memoiristic essays, which simply happen to be related by a fictional protagonist.

Fortunately, Batuman’s writing is funny and deadpan, and Selin’s observations tease out many relatable human quandaries surrounding friendship, social niceties and first love. The result: a novel that may not keep readers up late turning pages feverishly, but that will quietly amuse and provoke thought.

The Bottom Line:

With humor and insight, The Idiot immerses readers in a Harvard student’s thwarted, anxiety-filled freshman year, as she attempts to navigate love, friendship, and the possibilities of language.

What other reviewers think:

NPR: “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.”

Slate: “The central drama of The Idiot remains a young woman using words to find her way in the world. It is a pleasure to watch Batuman render this process with the wit, sensitivity, and relish of someone who’s successfully emerged on the other side of it.”

Who wrote it?

Elif Batuman is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of a collection of essays titled The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. She has won multiple awards, including a Whiting Writers’ Award and a Paris Review Terry Southern Prize for Humor. The Idiot is her first novel.

Who will read it?

The Idiot isn’t exactly action-packed. Its prime readership is people who enjoy novels-from-life, memoirs, and meandering, psychologically intimate narratives.

Opening lines:

“I didn’t know what email was until I got to college. I had heard of email, and knew that in some sense I would ‘have’ it. ‘You’ll be so fancy,’ said my mother’s sister, who had married a computer scientist, ‘sending your e, mails.’ She emphasized the ‘e’ and paused before ‘mail.’”

Notable passage:

“I wanted to know how it was going to turn out, like flipping ahead in a book. I didn’t even know what kind of story it was, or what kind of role I was supposed to be playing. Which of us was taking it more seriously? Didn’t that have to be me, because I was younger, and also because I was the girl? On the other hand, I thought that there was a way in which I was lighter than he was ― that there was a serious heaviness about him that was foreign to me, and that I rejected.”

The Idiot
By Elif Batuman
Penguin Press, $27.00
Published March 14, 2017

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