Originally published July 2018
Do you remember what you were like your freshman year in college?
When you are in the thick of it, it’s hard to see the forest through the trees. Your day to day is your day to day. But looking back, do you see a person with a well-defined vision of his or her future, or someone making their way to class because the alarm went off and that’s just what you are supposed to do?
Honestly? I was an idiot.
I don’t know for sure if Elif Batuman’s portrayal of Harvard freshman Selin was intended to mirror that of an idiot. And I don’t think Selin is one. But in “The Idiot,” it seems the titular character leans that way — not necessarily bumbling through life, but lacking any kind of sincere direction.
Selin is a young woman focused on the study of language, yet can rarely find the words to express herself. From interactions with her two roommates to her new friend Svetlana, she struggles with meaningful conversation. And moreover, a self-imposed anxiety about whether what she is saying has any meaning. You could argue it’s almost narcissistic, but I think in her case, it’s genuine fear of making a fool of herself as she tries to determine next steps in each and every interaction in which she is involved.
In a lot of ways, it’s not much different than what we all go through when we are first away at school. What should we eat? Where should we go? Which classes seem like a good fit? What do you do when you end up with a scrap pile of a schedule? Should I try chewing tobacco? Take a road trip to Sarnia? Batuman’s approach to the narrative can easily transport you back to those days when you argued with suitemates over who got the single.
Over the course of a year, Selin arrives at Harvard very much on her own, and somehow, despite herself, makes a good friend, falls in love for the first time (with, I think, a total jerkface), attempts community service, travels abroad to teach English and finds a calling in writing. It’s a lot to unpack, yet somehow Batuman lets the story unfold as naturally as it can.
This is a thinking person’s book — there’s no mystery murderer and Selin is not sleeping her way across campus in some display of sexual freedom. The devil is in the details, or lack thereof, with Selin. It’s hard to escape the emotional rollercoaster this relatively unflappable character is riding as she navigates a hard crush on an older classmate. Is Ivan a cad? Is he just honest? To each his own (Jerkface!). But either way, it’s a little bit heart wrenching surrounded by a hefty dose of a very dry wit.