Standing on a shuttle bus, listening to her Walkman and watching people on the street below, eighteen-year-old Harvard freshman Selin experiences a car crash: “Things changed somehow, and I was on the floor.” This, in Elif Batuman’s debut novel and second book, The Idiot, is one of the strangest descriptions of falling I’ve ever read. Intensely disembodied—there’s no mention of how it feels to lose your balance, to be suspended midair, to hit the ground—it’s as if Selin experiences her life by way of a submarine’s periscope. How much of this quality is due to Selin herself, an expression of her peculiar character, and how much of this come from Batuman’s prose style? I was often reminded, as I read The Idiot, of English translations of 19th century Russian literature. (Batuman’s title, her second borrowed from Dostoevsky, encourages the comparison.) Its sentences read like they didn’t begin in English, just that English is where they happen to have ended up.
Here’s one way to describe the plot: It’s 1995 and Selin, a precocious college freshman and burgeoning polyglot, is consumed by her study of language. This is another: It’s 1995 and Selin, a New Jersey-bred daughter of now-divorced Turkish immigrants and aspiring writer, gets her first email account. Here’s a third: It’s 1995 and Selin, more attracted to words than to bodies, becomes infatuated with a senior Hungarian mathematician, Ivan, who corresponds with her in sporadic, dense, and sometimes loopy messages. And a fourth: It’s 1995 and Selin, an American who speaks a few languages but none of them Hungarian, signs up to teach English over the summer in a small Hungarian village. The sum of these plotlines, a pleasant if sometimes bewildering equation, comes up short. This, I think, is on purpose.
In a 2006 essay in n+1, “Short Story & Novel,” Batuman praises a (fictional) novel, The Miner, “where you go into the mine and nothing happens” as opposed to the (nonfictional) novel, “Germinal, where you go into the mine and come out a socialist.” She condemns writing, especially short stories, that bear “the ghastly imprimatur of the fiction factory”—MFA programs, mainstream magazines, literary journals—work that is “pared down to a nearly unreadable core of brisk verbs and vivid nouns.” So much short fiction only exists because 10-30 pages is a convenient length for a workshop or for a magazine layout. So much American fiction, long and short, strains for meaning, buckling into acknowledged trauma (cancer, the Holocaust) like some kind of narrative life jacket. Instead, Batuman exhorts, “Write long novels, pointless novels.”
The Idiot is both long and pointless, and I love it. It’s full of uncanny moments. A bus crashing into a car is transmuted into “Things changed somehow.” Ivan and Selin, on a long maybe-date walk around Cambridge, bury a newly bought container of strawberries. After Ivan brushes her ear, perhaps the first time they’ve touched in the many months of their quasi-romantic relationship, Selin struggles to align her physical reactions to her psychological expectations: “I felt my body stiffen, I was filled with dread. And yet, I knew I wanted him to touch me—didn’t I? Wasn’t that my general policy?” Making small talk with a fellow teacher in Hungary, Selin jokes that she’s afraid she’ll accidentally eat all the chocolate she’s brought as gifts before she arrives at her assigned village, “following the rule that you had to pretend to have this problem where you couldn’t resist chocolate.” Thinking of Ivan in a bus, Selin wonders “whether he felt sad to leave Hungary or only excited to go to Thailand. It seemed weird how he cared so much what country he was from, but also cared so much about going to other countries. Or wait, that wasn’t weird—he just cared about countries.”
The Idiot’s plot, or lack thereof, is a little like going on a walk to nowhere and burying a box of strawberries along the way. It doesn’t have a straightforward meaning—you maybe didn’t have a destination, you might have eaten the strawberries—but it does matter. The Idiot is a novel of becoming, and Selin’s becoming is as a writer. “I thought that was the point of writing stories,” she says early in the book, “to make up a chain of events that would somehow account for a certain mood—for how it came about and for what it led to.” At its end, she watches a distant cousin beat a snake to death with a rake. “I thought I might write something about it,” she explains. “But when I tried to think of a plot that led to that swamp, I couldn’t face it.” It’s a setback but not a defeat. After all, The Idiot makes plain that the way into the swamp is not nearly so important as the muck itself.