THE POSSESSED: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 296 pp., $15.
A great 21st-century belletrist sounds as unlikely as a Victorian smartphone, and yet here she is. Elif Batuman - born in New Jersey, raised in New York, grad-schooled at Stanford - emerged from the carrels of academe into the pages of The New Yorker and Harper's with a unique combination of literary criticism, travelogue, memoir and humor. Now those essays have been packaged in a collection between sunny yellow covers, with an illustration by cartoonist Roz Chast.
In the introduction - the breeziest section of "The Possessed" - Batuman's description of a summer job at a Hungarian children's camp conveys the humor that carries the book through thick and thin. Like David Sedaris and Calvin Trillin, she relies on word choice, sentence structure and certain inflationary tactics, or tricks of focus. "Unknown parties had strongly impressed on the camp organizers that I, as an American, ate nothing but corn and watermelon," she writes. "Every day they brought me cans and cans of corn, and nearly a whole watermelon, which I ate alone in the cabin. In the absence of any formal duties I was pursued in their every free minute by a group of tiny, indefatigable Hungarian girls, who gently demanded that I play badminton with them and braid their hair."
Another irresistible example comes in the second section of the three-part essay "Summer in Samarkand," which describes in slightly too much detail Batuman's study of Uzbek language and literature. But just in case you don't really care about it as much as she does, she lures you along with moments like this: "From the Ferris wheel we often proceeded to the Internet salon in the Soviet part of the city: an infernal building jam-packed with teenagers who were possessedly manipulating avatars through gutted buildings and abandoned warehouses, shooting one another in the back with Uzis. Periodically, some young person, shot in the back one too many times, would leave in disgust, at which point the proprietor rushed to the abandoned station and sprayed the chair and computer keyboard from a can of Sure deodorant."
In the best-known essay, "Babel in California," we see Batuman's style of humor working in an intellectual context. In comparing the plot of a Babel short story to an anecdote from Gautier's biography of Balzac, Batuman discovers, "As in 'My First Goose,' a young man starts a new job, goes to live among people from a potentially unwelcoming culture, and attains respect and acceptance through the mutilation of poultry."
It's tempting to put Batuman in the tradition of Alain de Botton, who transformed high culture into middlebrow amusement and inspiration in books like "How Proust Can Change Your Life" and "The Consolation of Philosophy." But Batuman isn't casting her net so wide. Tracing the intersections of Tamerlane's Perfect Chess and Victor Shklovsky's literary theory, of Girard's mimetic desire and Stendhal syndrome, Batuman is truly, madly, deeply nerdy - and sui generis.