Rating: 5 stars
The Idiot was my last book from the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist. I didn’t manage to finish reading it before the winner was announced. In fact, it’s a book that I took my time over. I liked its style. The way Elif Batuman writes reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut and Haruki Murakami in the surreal episodes that reveal the oddness of human nature. At times I was reminded of Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. It also made me think a little of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, because it’s about a young woman trying to work out what is expected of her and how to behave around others while maintaining her integrity.
Selin is a funny character, naturally witty and pleasingly quirky. Her Turkish immigrant upbringing, her academically ambitious mother, her father and his second wife and their turducken for Thanksgiving, all contribute to her moulding. Arriving at Harvard, making her own choices, testing the waters of adulthood, making new friends offers the opportunity to remould herself.
I enjoyed the short paragraphs, which read like the script for a stand up routine or a fourth wall-breaking TV comedy show. I enjoyed the way they jumped around, skipping from reportage about Selin’s day to elaborate notes left for her by one of her friends and on to extracts from a bizarre story written for learners of Russian.
The time period roughly equates to when I was at university as a postgraduate. Selin has a Walkman. Laptops are very new, as are email addresses and Discmans. Mobile phones don’t exist but voicemail does. Films are rented on VHS. Students read books for research because this World Wide Web hasn’t exploded into the Internet yet. Selin takes on part time jobs to earn a little extra money, rather than as a means of survival. She chooses freshman classes at random, feels free to not turn up to lectures and tutorials, ignores what her tutors tell her and bases her essays on her own perspective. I remember my first year at university as an undergraduate being about freedom, more than anything. Batuman captures that feeling perfectly in The Idiot. I get the impression, from the students that I encounter now, who are laden with debt from the off, that university is a much more serious thing these days, less about life lessons and more about career prospects. It seems a shame to me.
Selin’s teaching jobs range from basic maths to ESOL to algebra. Each of her students has their own challenges, none of them stay very long in her tutorials. She tries out a variety of courses in her freshman year, encountering interesting people along the way. Her own ideas don’t always tally with what her lecturers are saying, and she also starts to absorb the perspectives of the other students she becomes friends with. She begins to feel as though she has been cut adrift, that not even language makes sense. Her email exchanges with Ivan, an older student, contribute to her existential confusion.
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.
In the morning when I saw Ivan’s name in the in-box I almost started to cry. It reminded me of a kind of torture I had read about where afterwards the captors returned your senses to you one by one, and you felt so grateful that you told them everything.
Selin sees a therapist who tries to tell her that she is experiencing unrequited love, that she has made up a version of Ivan that isn’t real, that if she spent time talking with him instead of emailing she would likely discover that he wasn’t the man she thought she wanted to be with. Selin never returns to the therapist. Instead her days are punctuated by Ivan’s elliptical emails and her own increasing sense of drift.
As her relationship with Ivan progressed, the pair reminded me of Hannah and Adam in Girls. Except that I find Hannah to be whiny and manipulative, but Selin I like a lot. There’s something about the way neither Selin nor Ivan are fully formed adults but are starting to feel their way towards being adults that seemed similar to the complicated relationship that Hannah and Adam have.
In fact, the more the novel progressed, the more similarities I found with Girls. Selin’s friend from summer camp, Ralph, is a version of Elijah. Lakshmi, the English girl that Selin shares a building with but whom she only gets to know when she wins a writing prize, is bohemian and takes drugs. She’s a South Asian Jessa. Selin’s room mate Hannah is a Chinese American Shoshanna. Svetlana is too cool to be Marnie, though, and Selin’s other room mate Angela is too aloof. Those differences aside, it’s as though Batuman has taken the white privilege of Girls and sprinkled multiculturalism over it.
The second part of the book follows Selin to France and then Hungary. Under Ivan’s suggestion, she joins a group of students who will teach English at summer schools to children in remote Hungarian villages.
In France she is unwitting witness to a love triangle that Svetlana has embraced while claiming she is uncomfortable with it. In Hungary her confusing romance with Ivan deepens. Selin is unable to read his signals and Ivan is unable to tell her directly how he feels about her.
After yet another episode of missed encounter, Selin has been out for the evening and is thinking about phoning Ivan but vacillating because it’s 2am. When she gets back to the hostel, her roommate finds a note from Ivan. More than anything else in the book, this passage summed up for me that transition from teenage to adulthood and the confusion and lack of confidence over romantic feelings.
She handed me a folded paper, a worksheet, with answers in millilitres. Kovacs Csaba had gotten them all right. I turned it over. Dear Selin, I read. Maybe this is the last one of the long series of missing you. I’m going back home now. I was trying to locate you the whole day. If you want you can call me till late tonight. Iván.
… I imagined the stairs to the lobby, the payphones in the dark, the coins against my thumb, his voice. The scramble to think of things to say, with only little reprieves, during which I would have to listen to whatever things he had thought up to say. Then the dial tone again, higher-pitched than in America – it was always there, like the sea inside a shell – and the empty dull feeling in my chest, like now, only worse.
At the same time, it seemed certain to me that someday I would really want to hear his voice and wouldn’t be able to, and I would think back to the time that he had invited me to call him, and it would seem as incomprehensible as an invitation to speak to the dead.
As Selin socialises with the other students she begins to understand the need for friendships of different types, the need to get along with other people even if only for the briefest time. Her very uncertainty about who she is makes her open to the different experiences she has. Batuman writes her as a blank canvas on whom marks and daubs are made and then erased or painted over.
One night she goes to a nightclub. Her roommate Dawn orders cider but the bar doesn’t have it, so the bartender mixes apple juice, Sprite and vodka. That sounds delicious to me. Better than the G&T Selin is given.
When Selin describes how another student from her dorm, who also wants to be a writer and has arranged a summer internship at The New Yorker, seems to be taking a more direct route towards becoming a writer, I felt a pang. Deep down, I have always wanted to take the indirect route, as Selin seems to be doing, collecting experiences, seeing where life takes her, not entirely aimless but not following a specific goal either. Instead, I took the route of doing the sensible thing, working hard to make my parents proud, securing myself a career that didn’t leave me open to too much risk, living an average, acceptable kind of life. This is partly because I am risk averse, but mostly because my parents drummed into me and my siblings the need to not be reliant on others, to know that we will sleep each night in our own home, to know that there is food on the table, to know that we are secure. Their pride was in the fact that they had raised us to be responsible citizens. There is nothing wrong in that, but to me now it feels restrictive. What if I had followed my desire and gone inter-railing in Europe each summer break instead of checking exam scripts every summer? What if I’d taken a year out to travel America as I wanted to, instead of finding temporary jobs after university while I worked out what I wanted to do with my degree? What if I’d quit work like I wanted to fifteen years ago to become a writer? What if I’d gained a CELTA qualification while I was learning Japanese so that I could teach English in Japan?
That’s a lot of what if. In the scheme of things, it doesn’t matter. I made the choices that seemed right at the time, and from those choices I have a job that I enjoy, good friends that I might not have known otherwise, and am married to the man I love.
For Selin, life is still waiting to unfold. She absorbs her experiences without realising it. She is changed by them. When she returns to Harvard, she takes her next steps. Batuman decides that her readers don’t need to share in where Selin’s life will go. I liked that open end to the novel.
I rate The Idiot as highly as Sing, Unburied, Sing and When I Hit You from this year’s shortlist. My least favourite book won this year. Home Fire is the book I would have put money on, were I the gambling sort, because it consists of a subject that feels taboo but relevant to white readers, and is a reworking of a piece of classical literature that, if you haven’t read the original, makes you feel cleverer by proxy and, if you have read it, makes you feel smug. It underwhelmed me, though. It seemed more style than substance, clinical and lacking in heart.
If you’re wondering about which of this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction nominees to read, my recommendations are Elif Batuman’s, Jesmyn Ward’s and Kamila Shamsie’s.