In The Idiot, we follow Selin in her first year at Harvard in 1995.
Let’s point out my personal bias in the beginning:
The Idiot reads like a slice-of-life novel, which isn’t my favored type of book.
Granted, there are moments of “ah, yes!” When Selin struggles to decide on a college major, she is instantly relatable to those of us who were burgeoning young adults in that mid-1990s era … or really in any era.
Several anecdotes offer a tick of recognition. The elders’ confusion with this new email thing reminds me of conversations with my email-hating grandmother. Selin purchases reams and reams of pink printer paper so she can paper her dorm room like a pink hotel room, which brings me back to my early apartment-dwelling days when I stapled wallpaper to the walls. When Selin looks at green letters on a black screen and doesnâ€™t realize she can check her emails from other computers, we get a wave of reminiscence for the early days of widespread computer technology.
The Idiot offers other chuckle-worthy moments as well. See her awkward description of The Gift of the Magi, or her dorm room poster of Einstein, derided by almost all visitors.
But these are just moments. The book is a collection of moments.
Selin learns about Bunuel, Spanish, and neural networking in her college education. Obviously, sheâ€™s intelligent. After all, she’s matriculating at Harvard.
At the same time, she’s like any other young woman trying to figure out where she wants to go in life. And that direction looks more and more like a creative one, rather than the income security that a science or business-based career could bring.
Selin has a frustrating, unrequited crush on her friend, Ivan. It’s devastatingly familiar for any girl who has crushed so hard with no hope.
But there are too many Ivans. Even though they identify themselves by their last names, I can’t keep them straight. One Ivan is friends with Selin and has an email correspondence with her. Another Ivan breaks her friend Nina’s heart by being married. Yet another Ivan gives rides in his tractor to people who mistake him for the other Ivan. I can’t figure which traits to assign to which Ivan, and even if there are two or three of them.
Perhaps it’s my own fault for rushing through the book.
I was ready to be finished when I was only a third of the way through. Situations are presented with no contribution to the overall narrative. The book meanders.
Notably, The Idiot by Elif Batuman shares the same title as The Idiot by Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky. But I can’t figure out why. There’s no detectable winking reference to the original classic, other than the inclusion of Russian characters.
The Idiot is doing well in the Tournament of Books. Judge Ismail Muhammad brilliantly describes the book thusly:
“I probably found The Idiot so intensely relatable because it’s a book that is willing to risk being boring…it’s often dull if not outright tedious; its plot tends to be faint at best.”
– Ismail Muhammad, The Morning News
In this context, he praises the book for daring to be dull. The magic is in the monotonous moments.
He makes a compelling point. But it serves to validate exactly what frustrates me about The Idiot. Is the book’s stillness and nostalgia enough to carry a reader through 423 pages? Not for me. But I can appreciate how it’s a warm, welcome blanket for others.