“What was it to know each other?”
This and other philosophical questions simmer inside this beautiful 2018 Pulitzer Prize finalist. It’s 1995 and Selin, a first-generation Turkish immigrant, is a Harvard freshman learning to connect: through academia, through the internet, and through awkward interactions with her peers. Central to this is an email correspondence she develops with a senior mathematics student, Ivan, which guides her into an uncomfortable understanding of love, loss, and the limitations of language.
The Idiot. By Elif Batuman. Penguin. 2017. Paperback
How did I get the book?
I picked up the paperback copy at The Strand last holiday season when I was buying a present for a boy with whom things did not work out. I sort of forgot about it. Then, this week, when I was lamenting a different boy with whom things did not work out, I found a review of the novel on Goodreads saying the book would definitely disappoint anyone looking for romance. Sounded perfect.
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What did I think?
There is an immediate charm in Selin's newness at university. She tries to be cheerful as everyone tells her she should be exhilarated rather than anxious in being a little fish in a big sea and feels embarrassed over understanding nothing in the Times Literary Supplement. “I had no idea what you were supposed to be thinking about,” she says. “Everything the professors said seemed to be somehow beside the point...The implication was that it was somehow naïve to want to talk about anything interesting, or to think that you would ever know anything important.” Selin's acute observations are engaging, albeit unconventional, as she struggles to decide what she wants to do, to accept that other people cannot be the reason for her decisions. “It occurred to me," Selin says eventually, “that it might take more than a year—maybe as many as seven years—to learn to feel nineteen.”
Paramount in Selin's education is her exposure to email. “It was like the universal handwriting of thought or of the world,” she observes of the identical message font. “All the words you threw out, they came back…the story of your relations with others, the story of your life with other lives, was constantly being recorded and updated, and you could check it any time.” This fascination turns obsessive when she starts emailing Ivan, making her feel as though she is living in two worlds: inside and outside of a metaphorical, digital house. She feels seen by his messages in a way that she does not otherwise, identifying with subject lines more than reality. “It made me feel peaceful to see that he was online,” Selin admits, then rhetorically asks, “Why was it more honorable to reread and interpret a novel like Lost Illusions than to reread and interpret some email from Ivan?” The pair agree the email bubble feels more “right” than hanging out in person despite being yards apart, that it is easier than real life.
The emails—and in many ways, the entire novel—speak to Selin's unconscious interest in language fueling her desire to write. She becomes depressed by breakdowns in communications she has with others, particularly with Ivan, and also in understanding the malleability of words, how easily she can use them to betray someone or to approximate the truth just by iteration. “It had never occurred to me to think of aesthetics and ethics as opposites," Selin says. “I thought that was the point of writing stories: 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.” But she realizes that moods created by written words allow you to get away with more than you ever could in person, that the narratives we make up about our own lives feed whatever we feel is missing in order to appease our aesthetics. It troubles Selin, but it doesn't stop her. “I wanted to write about it while I could still feel it and see it around me,” she says near the novel's conclusion, "while the teacups still seemed to be trembling.”
🌟 4.85/5 — Nearly Perfect
“Every story had a central meaning,” Selin says. “You could get that meaning, or you could miss it completely.” My copy of this novel is decimated with red-ink underlining of words that bring about a necessary breakdown in grasping meaning from the deft, delicious prose. For me, these moments (1,400-words worth of them…) were primarily in Selin and Ivan’s relationship. Their electronic intimacy spoke to me, how in their remoteness he says things to her that she could never invent. I felt her nerves in waiting to write back, in nearly crying upon finding his name in her morning inbox, something she compares to a form of torture, “where captors returned your senses to you one by one, and you felt so grateful that you told them everything.” “The fact that the email had been written specifically to me, in response to things I had said, made it literally a conversation,” Selin says, then defensively adds, “Wasn’t what I was doing in a way more authentic, and more human?” Yet Selin struggles to grasp Ivan’s reasoning for not talking in person: “I get more of You than I could ever get from anything down-to-earth and crystal-clear…My love for you is for the person writing your letters.” Although in love, I wasn’t entirely blind to the warning signs littered throughout: Selin’s fear about who is taking the communication more seriously (“What if Ivan had concocted this whole pretentious correspondence just to see how far I would go?” she wonders); others in Selin’s life telling her the story of their interactions doesn’t make sense and her insisting it was exciting not to understand; her disbelief when they do awkwardly hang out that he could truly be the person writing her the emails. Still, I, like Selin, remained dependent on the phone calls and hurt when they get in an argument because she cannot fathom how he would be okay with possibly never seeing her again. “I realized that I missed Ivan,” Selin says at one point. “How could I miss him? I didn’t even know him.” A conversation she has with a campus therapist about the realities of the relationship midway through the novel is particularly alarming in regard to all of this.
Yet, Selin (and myself) continued with the infatuation in hopes that she and Ivan may never exhaust each other of their finite personalities. I enjoyed every description of how watching Ivan dig inside the pocket of his jeans left Selin in unique awe, experiencing secondhand her floating in a blue box when with him and the joy of touching his hand for the first time, even as she questions again if a relationship where they both seem to smile in knowing they have hurt each other could really be love, resisting that “real intimacy is a place where there are no mistakes…you don’t just blow everything with one wrong move.” I was spellbound by her daydream of walking around together from dusk till dawn despite her admission “he stressed me out so much, and all we ever did was mishear each other and say ‘What?’ all the time” because I understood how her first time experiencing her body contracting and tightening in a desire for something that wasn’t there, her so desperately wanting the culmination of it all in a way she’d never wanted before. As it becomes clear that Selin’s reluctance to accept Ivan feeling “increasingly like the parody of a love interest” is based on how rare it is in the world to meet somebody you connect to, it is even easier to feel her heartbreak at its eventual end, to sympathize as they bid adieu and Selin becomes nostalgic for not so long ago when they still had so much time ahead of them, how she feels suddenly lost for wanting to do much of anything. I remembered her fear a hundred pages back of there coming a day of wanting to hear his voice and not being able to and felt like crying myself. I certainly cried in their last interaction: “It was never really a conversation,” Selin says, to which Ivan agrees: “It was better.”
Beyond the book.
The only thing more satisfying than underlining all over the place in The Idiot was hearing Batuman read from the book. She wrote it in the early 2000s when she was in her twenties on a gap year from graduate school, then relocated it in a Google Doc years later. You can hear her talk about it in this taped event at Politics & Prose last year. (Also, if you want to hear a They Might Be Giants song frequently referenced throughout the novel, it’s here).
See you again soon!