"The Idiot" by Elif Batuman: A Review

By Emily Lever

Having given her first book the same title as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, Elif Batuman has kept that streak going with her follow-up. Her latest novel shares a title with Dostoevsky’s 1868 The Idiot, but any comparison between the two would be apples and oranges.

Batuman’s Idiot is far from a rewriting of Dostoevsky’s. She tells the story of a unique but hardly extraordinary Turkish-American Harvard freshman, Selin Karadag, and not the tumultuous life of someone like Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin (Dostoevsky’s 1868 protagonist), complete with a huge cast of characters and a backdrop of political intrigue.

And yet Batuman’s novel is no less rewarding for being, on its face, uneventful. The Idiot (2017) is probably the best campus novel since Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, albeit with a vastly different payoff.

"The Idiot is probably the best campus novel since Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, albeit with a vastly different payoff."

One of the first things any reader will notice about this novel is that it’s a resolutely non-romanticized but still quaint time capsule from the 1990s. In the very first sentence, the narrator informs us, “I didn’t know what email was until I got to college” (3). Throughout the novel, email is a new and thrilling form of communication laden with romantic potential, much as AOL messenger would be for the teenagers of the following decade (and completely unlike the role email occupies in our lives today. Email drives the otherwise minimal plot of The Idiot. Selin and a boy in her Russian class, for example, exchange emails back and forth in an intense epistolary romance – a historically specific setup for a truly evergreen story.

Another aspect of The Idiot’s opening passage, which becomes central to the novel, is Selin’s comical distance from the strange world of Harvard: “I didn’t understand how the email address was an address, or what is was short for. ‘What do we do with this, hang ourselves?’ I asked, holding up the Ethernet cable.” (3) Selin’s detachment--the source of constant dry hilarious observations--is clearly related to (though not entirely explicable by) her Turkish identity and upbringing. Harvard’s campus is home to a culture that is doubly alien to her because it’s American and because it’s a college campus, with all of the arbitrary rules and traditions that accompany it. (And a college that attracts competitive, intense, sometimes odd people at that.)

A seemingly universal feature of the campus novel is that its setting in an educational institution means it must somehow be about learning – it is almost always a coming-of-age story. What’s exceptional about The Idiot, however, is that it may be the only campus novel that resists that inclination, and even pokes fun at the very idea. Selin ticks all the boxes a college student is supposed to: she studies diligently, does volunteer work, falls in love, and studies abroad, and yet she doesn’t feel she has learned anything. Is it her own fault for being so detached? Maybe the people and institutions that surround her are simply vacuous and useless. Just because she’s young, doesn’t mean she’s an idiot. LSP