Elif Batuman’s very funny debut novel is about a young woman’s freshman year at Harvard. This may be the worst thing you can say about the book right away: The premise implies precious and self-serious comings-of-age, frosted with Ivy League guilt.
But to all of that, Batuman says: Nah. Selin, its narrator, is constitutionally incapable of adhering to such familiar arcs. It’s 1995, and e-mail is baffling: “all the words you threw out, they came back.” Song lyrics like “I miss you like the deserts miss the rain” are baffling: “Why would a desert miss rain? Why wasn’t it okay for a desert to be a desert?” Liberal higher education? You guessed it: “I went from class to class, read hundreds, thousands of pages of the distilled ideas of the great thinkers of human history, and nothing happened.”
The plot of “The Idiot” follows Selin’s travels at Harvard and in Paris and Hungary as she ponders a potential relationship with a math student. Throughout, she wittily sketches the peculiarities of campus life (“two students were slumped over their books, either asleep or murdered”), Russian novels, and the Beatles.
But the novel’s lifeblood is Batuman’s observations of our struggles to communicate. Whether it’s teaching ESL classes or studying linguistics, Selin is cornered into moments that expose just how prone to confusion we are. When she tells another student that she’s always lived in America, “he looked startled, like maybe he thought that I meant since 1776.” An Esperanto phrase book claims “struggle for peace” as a “frequently used noun.”
“Why don’t any messages come to me clearly?” Selin bemoans to her kinda-sorta love interest. That’s a common sentiment for a 19-year-old away from home for the first time. But Batuman builds more existential questions around it. If we can’t agree on how to communicate, what does it mean to say you’re “educated” or “communicating” or “in love”? Hungarian, Russian and HTML don’t just mean new words for Selin — they’re proof that, for all the work of linguists and translators, the world is rife with divisions.
Not that “The Idiot” is overtly heavy about that. Batuman’s first book, 2010’s “The Possessed,” was a memoir of her travels in Russian lit scholarship that was similarly comic. That book had a mean streak, though — she was unafraid to poke fun at Tolstoy and his enthusiasts, but it wasn’t always clear why they deserved the brickbats. “The Idiot” has a more humble narrator: Selin is aware that an American teenager is “the world’s least interesting and dignified kind of person.” But Batuman also knows that her struggle is a timeless one. “Why were we all so bad at writing stories?” her hero asks. “What were we missing? When would we get better?”
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt.”
By: Elif Batuman.
Publisher: Penguin Press, 423 pages, $27.