The Incendiary Impact of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot

By Louise McCune

A factory sorts its oil drums. Behind door number one is a room of full barrels, and behind door two sits a stash of empty ones. Workers at the factory are wary around the full ones, taking precaution to avoid combustion, when in fact it is the other set that deserve their heightened vigilance. Those empty drums are in fact not empty at all. Once their liquid is used up, they become full of flammable vapors and are therefore even more volatile than their unused counterparts. Their menace is obscured by their moniker — “empty” — with disastrous consequence; deeming the empty drums empty of threat, workers are disarmed in their presence. They take breaks. They light cigarettes. They start a fire.

“What had started the fire?” asks Selin, the protagonist of Elif Batuman’s debut novel, The Idiot. A simple answer (a match?) would not suffice for this narrator: “Wasn’t it the binaries that were built into our concept of language? What if our language had a different concept of ‘empty,’ or no concept of ‘empty’?” Selin is a first-year undergraduate at Harvard whose questions are dependably wide-eyed and incisive, no matter the object of her inquiry. She is a narrator who probes the relationship of thought to language with just as much sincerity as she does the reactions of her peers to the poster on her dormitory wall. When she spends time that she could spend studying instead reading and rereading an e-mail from a boy she is crushing on, she wonders at her sense of shame: “Why was it more honorable to reread and interpret a novel like Lost Illusions than to reread and interpret some email from Ivan?” With these questions and others, Selin tentatively collapses the binaries supposed in her academic context: between intelligent concerns and banal ones, between occupation and idleness, between fullness and emptiness.

The Idiot chronicles Selin’s first year of college, including a summer spent traveling and teaching English in Europe. Her experience could be considered typical of a liberal arts education. She forges new friendships, attends class, takes up a volunteer assignment, and wanders around Cambridge. She begins an epistolary romance with a classmate, Ivan, which is so heavy with missed communication and unresolved tension that it surely qualifies for the will-they-or-won’t-they hall of fame. Even Selin’s summer travels are largely uneventful. She takes trains between European cities and villages, meets a series of hosts, and communicates — with varying degrees of success — in the several languages she knows or is learning. Because, during her sojourn, her policy is to “choose the less conservative and more generous” avenue when confronted with a choice between two courses of action, she finds herself easily whisked from one unfamiliar setting to another on planes, trains, and boats. With each small journey the cast of supporting characters changes as well. Selin describes her experience teaching English in Hungary much as we might describe reading of her travels; it is sometimes “like reading War and Peace: new characters [come] up every five minutes, with their unusual names and distinctive locutions, and you [have] to pay attention to them for a time, even though you might never see them again for the whole rest of the book.”

A reader keen on conflict could be deterred by this synopsis. What’s more, The Idiot, concerned as it is with the minutiae of a certain rarified campus life, may seem to propose a sort of navel-gazing escapism that is disproportionate to the current news cycle. Do not be fooled: it’s accurate to say that The Idiot is as empty as an empty oil drum. Batuman has stockpiled a fine collection of non-events, and yet! The result is incendiary.

During a psycholinguistics lecture on diacritics, our narrator marvels that, in Europe, “even the alphabet [emits] exuberant sparks” (see: a, â, á, and à). One could apply a similar assessment to Batuman’s prose style: her wit is like a firecracker. In passages like this one, Batuman shows us that she can fill daydreams and “empty” days with exuberant sparks:

The professor was talking about the differences between creative and academic writing. I kept nodding. I was thinking about the structural equivalences between a tissue box and a book: both consisted of slips of white paper in a cardboard case; yet — and this was ironic — there was very little functional equivalence, especially if the book wasn’t yours.

These moments of cunning wordplay, subtle humor, and deft imagery are frequent, but alone they do not fuel this novel. While the pyrotechnics delight, there is a fire smoldering beneath that can burn. This is a coming-of-age novel: at the gravitational center of Selin’s reveries is the question of how to be: How to be a writer? How to be a lover? How to be a person?

The possibilities that Selin identifies over the course of the novel are plenty. As do many undergraduates, she often attempts answers to these questions in the decisions she makes: what major to pursue, how to spend her free time, what poster to put on her dorm room wall. Her basic concern — “how to dispose of my body in space and time, every minute of every day, for the rest of my life” —  is not the proprietary concern of 19-year-olds, so readers of all ages will find moments of relatability. However, what intrigues most are the decisions Selin doesn’t make, or doesn’t initially recognize as choices to be made, given her propensity for binary collapse.

One such example is made known to Selin by her new friend Svetlana shortly after they meet in a Russian language class. Svetlana suggests that she differs from Selin because she lives by ethical principles, whereas Selin lives by aesthetic ones. This prompts Selin to consider for the first time this ostensible binary — between ethics and aesthetics — and to collapse it almost on reflex: “I thought ethics were aesthetic,” she muses. “‘Ethics’ meant the golden rule, which was basically an aesthetic rule. That’s why it was called ‘golden’ like the golden ratio.”

It is with this outlook that Selin starts down the path of learning how to live rightly. If that glint of gold wasn’t a hint, she has a mind for the visual: she is out to curate her life. Whereas her mother instructs that a story always has a central meaning, Selin writes to capture a feeling that she can only describe in a series of images: “a pink hotel, Albinoni, ashes, and being unable to leave.” She shies from clear and logical language, choosing abstraction and juxtaposition in its stead. In her correspondence with Ivan, she and he compare the merits of their chosen fields of study (his is math), each beautiful in their self-sufficiency. Selin is attracted to systems like language and math which can exist, beautifully, without meaning or message. Selin is also attracted to Ivan, but despite her attraction she postpones an in-person meeting. She relegates their relationship to email inbox, fearing that their connection to beauty would be sundered by the homeliness of meaning, message, or intention. Inevitably, however, their correspondence leads to actions. Their aesthetic project has its consequence in the concrete realm.

With The Idiot, Batuman has created something undeniably beautiful. It does not proffer a message, and that is entirely the point. If this book has a purpose, it is to create a space where the reader can (frankly, privately) ask herself some of the very same questions that Selin does. Batuman toes some important considerations about what it means for a self-declared aesthete to live rightly in a social world. She does not come to a verdict. She built the factory, and she has left it to her readers to light the match.

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