By Elif Batuman
Penguin Press, $27, 432 pages
ISBN 9781594205613, audio, eBook available
Human relationships are tricky: They're built on communication, which relies on language. And language, of course, is unreliable. This is the frustrating truth at the heart of The Idiot, Elif Batuman's debut novel.
Batuman, a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2010 (and author of the 2010 essay collection The Possessed), says her novel is semi-autobiographical. Like its heroine, she was born and raised in New Jersey to Turkish immigrant parents. The two also share a fascination with language, which is evident on every page.
The Idiot is part coming-of-age, part love story. It's steeped in travel and in the devastating power of words--or, more precisely, the general inadequacy of words when it comes to truly getting close to other people.
Our narrator, Selin, is about to start her freshman year at Harvard in the mid-'90s. Quiet and awkward, Selin observes her surroundings with an unfiltered blend of wonder and deadpan humor. Her running commentary is a pure delight. She's at once hilarious, self-deprecating and painfully accurate--and free of the conventions of thought that can make the inner life of a college student seem so ordinary. Basically, she's odd in the best way.
Meeting a professor in his office one day when she has a terrible cold, Selin silently ponders the similarities between a book and a box of tissue: "[B]oth consisted of slips of white paper in a cardboard case," she notes. But one of the two--ironically, given the setting--has zero utility if all you want is to blow your nose. "These were the kinds of things I thought about all the time, even though they were neither pleasant nor useful," she adds. "I had no idea what you were supposed to be thinking about."
Part of the novel's joy comes from Selin's encounters with others, from her snippy roommate and her intense classmate Svetlana (with whom she travels to Paris) to Ivan, the enigmatic Hungarian she falls for in Russian class and follows to Budapest. Batuman is especially great at illustrating the torment of love.
But nearly all of her characters' efforts to achieve mutual understanding are imperfect--which, for the reader, turns out to be perfect indeed.