In her semi-autobiographical novel, The Idiot, Elif Batuman uses the voice of Selin, a Harvard freshman and daughter of Turkish immigrants, to observe the world at its most mundane. This is a perspective of which I have never witnessed an author dig so deeply into, yet one I now believe more authors should explore when broaching the subject of how to analyze our own identities.
The novel, published in 2017 and a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2018, is difficult to summarize. No singular storyline consumes the plot, very few characters remain present throughout the entirety of the book (though new ones seem to be introduced every few paragraphs), and the majority of the topics in the long compilation of observations that make up the novel are discussed for no more than a page and are rarely brought up again. Still, I found myself incredibly drawn to what I believe is a one-of-a-kind book.
The clear bit of narrative Batuman does supply is this: during her first year at Harvard, Selin, who believes she is destined to become a writer, analyzes the impact of language on who we are through Russian classes, art lectures, teaching English, visiting foreign countries, and corresponding with Ivan, a mathematics student from Hungary whom she falls deeply for. The book is set in 1995, when email is brand new. So, just as Selin is discovering herself and the importance of language in the new setting of college, the world is discovering where it stands at the dawn of the age of the internet, where constantly, “your own words came back to you” (Batuman 4).
During the last couple of weeks I spent with Selin, I constantly pivoted back and forth between feeling satisfyingly understood and as though I was rediscovering my own naivety over and over. As Selin described her position in many of the same experiences I have found myself in as a college freshman (from roommate debacles to navigating through social politics to cursing yourself both for what you said and did not), I found hilarity in the extent to which her thoughts and feelings mirrored my own.
She also expanded my perspective in areas I begrudgingly admit I had only ever peeked through the doorway of without ever fully entering the metaphorical room. Specifically, in terms of the importance of analyzing language, she goes beyond basically appreciating it for its allowance for communication and credits it with a large fraction of how an individual’s very personality is developed. As a bilingual speaker, she notes that she is forced to think differently in different languages because of the very morphemes that build up some languages but do not exist in others, such as the Turkish suffix, ‑mış, that requires speakers to denote what they did not witness personally, an admittance of subjectivity that does not have an equivalent in English. She ponders words that were borrowed from one language by another that now hold completely different meanings depending on where one is from, as well as how language must be infinite, like its own numerical system, because of its endless possibilities of syntax, making communication hold no bounds other than those we put in place ourselves. Even after closing the book, I continue to ask myself the terrifying yet important question Selin posits: “How did you separate where someone was from, from who they were?” (Batuman 295).
In an age where most coming-of-age novels exhaust the trope of idolizing their teenage female leads for their – simply put – quirky otherness, it was beyond refreshing to walk with a protagonist who both validates the opinions and uncertainties you thought you alone held and challenges you to think beyond them. In other words, Batuman offers a great friend for 423 pages – one I will miss dearly and implore others to meet.