Elif Batuman's 'The Idiot' sets a romantic crush on simmer
Dwight Garner illustrates some obsessions and regards of a tender heart as depicted by the author
Love, as Thomas Pynchon wrote, reviewing Gabriel García Márquez's novel 'Love in the Time of Cholera' in The New York Times Book Review in 1988 and quoting Mickey and Sylvia's 1956 hit single, love is strange.
Elif Batuman's first novel, "The Idiot," is in part about the unlikely and consuming crush that Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, develops on an older mathematics student from Hungary during her freshman year at Harvard. It is unclear, for hundreds of pages, whether this crush is requited. Meanwhile the reader, palm crushed into forehead, thinks, "Poor Selin, what are you doing to yourself?"
'The Idiot' is set in 1995. Blues Traveler plays on Discmans. Mixtapes are still units of emotional currency. Students type with green cursors on black screens. Email is new, and Selin intuits its power. "Each message contained the one that had come before, and so your own words came back to you - all the words you threw out, they came back," Batuman writes.
"It was like the story of your relations with others, the story of the intersection of your life with other lives, was constantly being recorded and updated and you could check it at any time." Anyone who has followed Batuman's work will not be surprised to learn that Selin first falls for Ivan, the Hungarian student, because she adores his email messages. Batuman is a language freak and geek. You can imagine one of her characters becoming attracted to someone, as did a woman in Norman Rush's last novel, "Subtle Bodies," because he was "verbal looking."
Herself the daughter of Turkish immigrants and a graduate of Harvard, Batuman is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of "The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them" (2010). That book was a witty and melancholy tour de force about reading and love and the pleasures of travel as against tourism. That same voice is poured into "The Idiot." It's memorable to witness Selin, via Batuman, absorb the world around her. Each paragraph is a small anthology of well-made observations.
Only Batuman would send a character in search of new clothes and have her think, "what was 'Cinderella,' if not an allegory for the fundamental unhappiness of shoe shopping?" Selin notes the "death roar" of an institutional toilet. She observes how, lighting a cigarette, "when the flame came into contact with the paper, it made a sound like the needle coming down on a record player."
Small pleasures will have to sustain you over the long haul of this novel. "The Idiot" builds little narrative or emotional force. It is like a beautiful neon sign made without a plug. No glow is cast. We're told why Selin falls for Ivan. He gives good email. He is also, as one of her friends puts it, "a seven-foot-tall Hungarian guy who stares at everyone like he's trying to see through their souls." He's Ivan the enfant terrible. Selin tells us about the force of her longing. "Every sound, every syllable that reached me," she says, "I wanted to filter through his consciousness." But we never feel this longing in our bones.
I'm reminded of the acting coach's dictum that it's not important that the actor cry; it's important that the audience does. After 100 pages, I was done with Ivan and wanted Selin to be done, too. I wished, as if she were an avatar in a video game, to point her in a different direction. Selin is not done with him. The summer after her freshman year, she travels to the Hungarian countryside to teach English and perhaps to see him on weekends. She consumes a lot of food with sour cream in it. She judges a contest to see which students have the best legs. She frets. Sexual heat is at a minimum.
This is too bad, because Batuman has a rich sense of the details of human attachment and lust. Watching Ivan dig into his pockets for coins, for example, Selin thinks: "An amazing sight, someone you're infatuated with trying to fish something out of a jeans pocket." That line beamed me back to my own freshman year at college.
'The Idiot' - at the rate Batuman is burning through the titles of Dostoyevsky novels, her next one will be called 'Netochka Nezvanova' - reminded me of Martin Amis's complaint about "Pride and Prejudice."
That novel's only flaw, he said, "is the absence of a 30-page sex scene between Elizabeth and Darcy." There are two things I admire about this novel. One is the touching sense, here as in everything Batuman writes, that books are life. Selin is, convincingly and only slightly pretentiously, the sort of person who buys an overcoat because it reminds her of Gogol's.
She likes learning Spanish because "the donkey had a place in the national literature." She delivers this writing advice, after hearing a story about a host placing an unsettling stuffed weasel in a guest room to keep someone company: "If you really wanted to be a writer, you didn't send away the weasel."
I also liked Selin's determination to be "someone trying to live a life unmarred by laziness, cowardice, and conformity." She's an interesting human who, very much like this wry but distant novel, never becomes an enveloping one. Fiction, like love, is strange.
The reviewer is a book critic for The Times.
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