THE IDIOT, by Elif Batuman. Penguin Press, 423 pp., $27.
To one kind of thinking, nothing much seems to happen in Elif Batuman’s idiosyncratic and unforgettable first novel, “The Idiot.” Her protagonist, Selin, a tall young woman of Turkish descent, arrives at Harvard to study. She chooses the ordinary kind of freshman subjects: linguistics, Russian language. She encounters the ordinary range of oddity in the student body. She makes some rookie mistakes — losing a beloved peacoat, being called out by a friend when she declares that she “liked documentaries” — but very little seems to touch her, or happen to her.
But incident isn’t what draws you into “The Idiot.” Character is. From the beginning, the reader notices that Selin is very intelligent but also somewhat aloof, not quite together. Her combination of ambition and aimlessness is a very recognizable type. For example, Selin has only the vaguest aspiration to be a writer. For her final assignment in a class called “Constructed Worlds,” she writes a story, but Selin isn’t looking to entertain a reader, or transport her. She can only explain her point in writing it as a mission of mood. “I thought that was the point of writing stories,” she muses, “to make up a chain of events that would somehow account for a certain mood — for how it came about and for what it led to.”
That obviously meta remark is a clue to Batuman’s intent. This is a book written by someone who has some questions about the rhetoric of “storytelling.” Because while “The Idiot” progresses in a linear fashion, it isn’t driven by a plot most people will follow. It isn’t a yarn, in the ordinary sense, put together with a climax and a denouement. The book is a page-turner, but not in the potboiler sense. Its pull is something more like how Selin at one point describes Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House”: “simultaneously absorbing and off-putting as someone else’s incredibly long dream.”
That said, the one thing which ends up captivating Selin is something like a story she tells herself: an email correspondence that gradually blooms into a romance. “The Idiot” is set in the mid-1990s, and it’s only the early days of email. So Selin reaches out to Ivan, an older Hungarian student in her Russian classes, typing his name into the recipient field without thinking much about it.
The romance starts slowly, the emails in the register of ordinary chatting at first. Then it gets serious, but Selin can’t quite tell if her affections are requited. So she writes to Ivan with a self-protective, bookish flirtation style that is the only variety available to a certain sort of emotionally careful, intellectual young woman. It’s some time before she can persuade him. “You say you’re not in the mood for insignificant subtleties,” she writes Ivan at one point. “But insignificant subtleties are the only difference between something special and a huge pile of garbage floating through space. I’m not making that up. People discovered it in the nineteenth century.”
Readers of Batuman’s nonfiction in The New Yorker and of her previous book, “The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them,” will recognize the signature blend of Batumanian intelligence and lightly ironic detachment in that voice. For Selin, as for Batuman, the world is both intensely interesting and constantly bewildering, not unlike Ivan himself. Without spoiling the outcome of the flirtatious correspondence, it’s safe to say that on some level the romance is very confusing. Perhaps that’s all romance ever is, come to think of it. And something about the way Batuman resists the easy tropes of romance ends up paying off when the subject finally can’t be avoided. A scene, late in the novel, where Ivan and Selin have their reckoning, is as beautifully rendered a portrait of romantic longing as any offered by more earnest novelists in recent years.
That might make “The Idiot” sound cloying. It isn’t. Batuman is always reminding the reader that people fall into traps, in stories. At one point, Selin recalls watching “Dumbo,” “a Disney movie about a puny, weird-looking circus elephant everyone made fun of,” in kindergarten. She remembers that the children around her all identified with Dumbo. Even the garrulous, popular bullies did. “It was astounding, an astounding truth,” she writes. “Everyone thought they were Dumbo.” And that seems to be Batuman jibing us, a little, about what her arch but empathetic novel achieves: most everyone who reads it will think they are Selin.