Olivia Tackles Elif Batuman's The Idiot


Picking up Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, I had two motivations: one, I knew that I liked Batuman’s writing because of the 2010 The Possessed; two, I knew that Batuman was a Turkish-American writer who wrote for The New Yorker. Being Turkish-American myself and having been taught to worship The New Yorker from birth, that second motivation would have been enough. Turkish writers have been gaining international prominence over the last couple of decades, with the likes of Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak being easily translated to English. Yet, I can’t think of a single Turkish-American writer who was raised in the US and who writes in English and still has their Turkish heritage play an important part. That may not seem like an important distinction, but that Turkish-American balance, where you’re undeniably American but undeniably shaped by your family’s culture, is part of who I am. Up until discovering Batuman, I relied on Jhumpa Lahiri and her work for putting those Third Culture Kid feelings into words, even though she was writing about another culture. I read The Namesake in high school, and it spoke to me in a way no novel had culturally done before. I hoped, afterwards, that I could find a similar book specifically tied to Turkish culture.

Batuman’s The Idiot is that book. A modern bildungsroman internally focalized through Selin, an eighteen year old girl beginning her studies at Harvard, The Idiot is a novel that almost seemed too good to be true. Selin is born and raised in the US by two intellectual, agnostic parents who have divorced and live in different states. Selin is intelligent, tall, and loves to discover new cultures. She goes against every racist stereotype of Turkish people that I was exposed to growing up (thank you, French school) and brings the Turkish people I actually knew to life through words.

Still, that Selin is of Turkish origin is never the point of The Idiot. That she is Turkish is important to her, but never really defines her. She is passionate about language and excited to learn about different cultures. She immediately signs up to study Russian at university, and it is her struggle to learn the language that defines much of the first half of the novel. Through this class, she becomes close friends with a Serbian girl, Svetlana, and falls in love with a Hungarian senior, Ivan, thereby destroying two “Turks cannot be friends with –” stereotypes at once and beautifully opening up both the novel and Selin to further cultures.

Ultimately though, The Idiot – through Selin – is a novel about the uncertainty and restlessness of university life. Selin is a young, eager student, and still, her uncertainty comes across on almost every page. She makes decisions on which classes to take, but there is a haphazard feeling that permeates her actions. These decisions drive the entire novel, but that they might never have been made are never forgotten. She goes in seemingly knowing what she wants, but she comes away not knowing at all. She is awkward, and often, her actions go awry. It is an unsettling representation of what student life can be like, leaving you stuck between the feeling that you suddenly know so much and yet know nothing at all.

This feeling is so thoroughly woven into the text that I was left in a state of unknowing for three weeks after finishing the novel. Like Selin going into university, I had gone into the text eagerly, ready to love it because of my prejudices. Yet, I came out uncertain, not really knowing what I had read. I knew that I had liked whatever it was, but that whatever it was had left me a bit empty. I still don’t really know, but I think that the feeling is appropriate to the story and is directly a result of the way the book is written. It is a masterpiece of characterization, and so it would be impossible to put down the novel feeling otherwise than Selin.

I am thankful for The Idiot – few novels dare to take such an honest stance, depicting both the passion and the potential loss behind intellectual pursuit. The Idiot rings true to many intellectual endeavors, and I only wish that it had come out when I was still an undergrad. I highly recommend it to anyone who has lived through the university experience as well as to anyone feeling a lack of cultural representation. It is an excellent, funny, and beautifully mundane book.

I give it 4/5 stars.