Front cover of The Idiot - Four very different booksTHE IDIOT

Elif Batuman

[Penguin Press, 432 pages]

The word “quirky” could’ve been coined to describe this 423-page novel by a young Turkish-American woman who works for The New Yorker magazine.

It begins with an account of the protagonist’s first year at Harvard University. The world, as Batuman describes it, is a place of non sequitur and humorous juxtapositions. It’s also amazingly counter-intuitive and often very disappointing.

The reader sees directly and clearly through the eyes of young Selin, and what he/she sees is pretty absurd at every step of the way. It resonates with the world I see going on around me, and it does with many others, too, judging from the book’s popularity.

Although I wouldn’t call the book “magical realism,” every ordinary happening becomes extraordinary through the author’s and character’s eyes.

In Batuman’s creation, every paragraph is like a new world. Although I wouldn’t call the book “magical realism,” every ordinary happening becomes extraordinary through the author’s and character’s eyes—sometimes just extraordinarily dull or foolish, but always extraordinary.

The author’s powers of observation are keen, and often include details others might not notice. There’s no possibility of imagining where things will go next in the story. The unusual quality of the book also comes, in part, from the author’s keen sense of some of the absurdities of language, or at least the ways people use it.

Harvard and its curriculum seem completely absurd. All the courses that Selin interviews for—apparently, at Harvard, freshmen have to interview for courses before being allowed to take them—are somehow removed from real life. The author manages to convey the impression that nearly every course at the university is about some irrelevant aspect of life, or some intellectual wrinkle on history, society or literature.

It was hard to decide on a literature course. Everything the professors said seemed to be somehow beside the point. You wanted to know why Anna [Karenina] had to die, and instead they told you that 19th century Russian landowners felt conflicted about whether they were really a part of Europe. The implication was that it was somehow naive to want to talk about anything interesting, or to think that you would ever know anything important.

There are, however, some interesting characters, people the protagonist befriends. They manage to transcend the existential vacuum and have real lives that a reader comes to care about.

The second half of The Idiot takes place in Europe. Selin takes a job teaching English in a Hungarian village, in order to follow a love interest who’s going home to his family in Budapest for the summer. On the way, she stops for several days in Paris with her friend and frequent opposite, Svetlana, whose presence in the book generates quite a few lively conversations. Europe is perhaps not quite as absurd as Harvard, but Selin’s unlikely adventures continue to unfold, bringing Don Quixote to my mind more than once.

The book is almost an Alice in Wonderland of realistic or semi-realistic literature. I recommend it highly!

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