Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Idiot is animated by the pleasures and frustrations of different forms of knowledge

Elif Batuman's novel follows an 18-year-old aspiring writer through her first year at Harvard.

In the introduction to The Possessed, Elif Batuman’s 2010 work of memoir-cum-literary criticism, she describes having to decide, on graduation, between a fiction-writing fellowship at an artists’ colony and the PhD programme in comparative literature at Stanford University. Batuman wants to be a writer, not an academic. The decision ought to be straightforward.

But when she visits the artists’ colony, she finds its culture depressingly sterile: “All it had were its negative dictates: ‘Show, don’t tell’; ‘Murder your darlings’; ‘Omit needless words’.” Worse still is the tendency she finds in creative writing culture to glory in ignorance of the literary tradition, or of specialised study of any kind. Batuman wants to write – and read – literature that is about literature, as well as about life. She chooses Stanford.

One PhD, one non-fiction book and several articles criticising the state of contemporary fiction later, Batuman – who is also a staff writer at the New Yorker – has published her first novel. Like The Possessed, which recounts the author’s often exuberant, often mystified interactions with Russian literature and its scholars, The Idiot is animated by the pleasures and frustrations of different forms of knowledge. Its heroine is Selin, an 18-year-old aspiring writer who, like her creator, is the 6ft-tall, New Jersey-raised daughter of Turkish immigrants. (The novel is at least partly autobiographical: readers of The Possessed will recognise a number of its episodes repurposed in The Idiot.) Loose, largely plotless and sweetly funny, The Idiot rejects the doctrine of omitting needless words in favour of marvelling, over more than 400 pages, at the complexities of language and communication.

Batuman follows Selin through her first year at Harvard and a summer in Europe. Bookish, awkward and idealistic, Selin arrives at University endearingly receptive to everything she encounters, however baffling. In the first few pages she is introduced to email (the year is 1995), learns what “psychedelic” means (her room-mate instructs her to buy a psychedelic poster for their common room – again, it’s 1995) and meets an array of vitriolic, melancholy and paranoid professors. She befriends Svetlana, a sophisticated Serb who blithely discusses her therapist and her “intellectually erotic” relationships.

The friendship between Selin and Svetlana allows each girl to define herself against the other. “I was the impetuous one,” Selin reflects, “who… evaluated every situation from scratch, as if it had arisen for the first time – while Svetlana was the one who subscribed to rules and systems… and saw herself as the inheritor of centuries of human history and responsibilities.”

The qualities that Selin identifies in herself here produce much of the novel’s charm. Evaluating the world from scratch, she portrays everything she sees with a calm, almost deadpan alertness to its peculiarity, its closeness to complete absurdity. In a club: “Dance songs turned out to consist of one sentence repeated over and over. For example: ‘I miss you, like the deserts miss the rain.’” Gnawing on a tuna baguette “seemed to require some kind of ear muscles that I had lost during the two-million-year course of human evolution”.

But Selin is not as different from Svetlana as she thinks. She doesn’t subscribe to rules and systems because she hasn’t yet found any that she likes; she’s still looking for a framework to help her understand the world. Driven by her interest in words, she signs up for a number of linguistics classes. She spends tedious weeks devising a theory of language that would enable a Martian to understand what humans mean by the word “language”.

She learns the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which posits that the language you speak affects your understanding of reality – and then she learns that linguists now regard this hypothesis as incorrect and borderline racist. “In my heart, I knew that Whorf was right,” Selin reports. “I knew I thought differently in Turkish and in English… different languages forced you to think about different things.”

Disenchanted, Selin becomes absorbed instead in learning Russian, which seems to make room for all the arbitrariness and oddity that linguistics wants to eradicate. Through her Russian classes she meets Ivan, an enigmatic Hungarian mathematician with whom she falls in love, and who causes her to spend the summer in Hungary, teaching schoolchildren English.

Ivan and Selin embark upon a tortuous email correspondence that confuses and agonises her as much as their encounters in person. “He felt to me increasingly like the parody of a love interest,” she says – but of course, feeling that way doesn’t diminish her feelings for him.

Neither Harvard nor Hungary, neither Russian nor Ivan, teach Selin exactly what she wants to know. She realises that her experiences will never assume the coherence of a novel. The fact that this lack of coherence is one of the subjects of The Idiot doesn’t always prevent the novel from dragging. Still, there is ample compensation in the pleasure of seeing Selin begin to puzzle out her own conception of the relation between experience, art and education. She may not be a writer yet, but it’s clear by the end of The Idiot that – no creative writing degree necessary! – she’s getting there. 

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and PhD student in English at Harvard University 

The Idiot
Elif Batuman
Jonathan Cape, 423pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 13 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions

Show Hide image

At best, The Confession Tapes makes you feel unease. At worst, despair

Netflix billed the show as a true-crime binge-watch – but its narrative arc is the opposite of cathartic.

Would you confess to a crime you hadn’t committed? For some days now, I’ve been asking myself this question. Furious and punchy, my gut tells me immediately that I wouldn’t, not in a million years. But then comes a quieter, less certain voice. Isn’t guilt, for some of us, a near-permanent state? Apt to apologise even when I’m not in the wrong, I cannot believe I’m the only woman alive who tortures herself in the small hours by thinking she has unknowingly done something very bad indeed.

All this was provoked by The Confession Tapes, billed on social media as “our” next Netflix true-crime binge-watch. In this instance, however, the breathless excitement is misplaced: binge-watching would seem to me to amount to a form of self-harm. Yes, it’s compulsive. Stoked by bloody police photographs, the atmosphere can be suspenseful to a queasy-making degree. But like Making a Murderer and The Keepers before it, its prime concern is not with crimes committed so much as with the American justice system, for which reason its narrative arc is the opposite of cathartic.

At best, it will leave you feeling uneasy. At worst, you may find yourself sinking down into something akin to despair.

Director Kelly Loudenberg tells six stories over the course of seven episodes. Each involves a brutal murder (or murders) for which a perpetrator (or perpetrators) has (have) since been safely (unsafely) convicted. All are linked by one factor: the conviction was secured primarily thanks to a confession extracted by the police under extreme circumstances. Lawyers were not present; mind games were played; interviewees were exhausted, unstable, traumatised. In one instance, the authorities took what’s known as the “Mr Big” approach: undercover officers, playing their roles with all the gusto of a local am-dram society, pretended to be gangsters whose criminal networks could save the accused from death row if only they (the accused) would provide them with all the facts.

Why did juries believe these confessions, unaccompanied as they were by forensic evidence? Here, we go back to where we began. “No,” they told themselves. “I would not admit to a crime I had not committed.” Either such citizens have no softer inner voice – or, more likely, the idea of listening to it is simply too terrifying.

Predictably, the majority of the accused are poor and ill-educated, and perhaps this is one reason why the case of Sebastian Burns and Atif Rafay, two articulate middle-class boys from Canada, stood out for me (the pair were found guilty of the 1994 murder in Bellevue, Washington, of Atif’s parents and sister; at the time, they were 19). Or perhaps it is just that I still can’t understand why an American court considered “Mr Big” evidence admissible when the technique is illegal in the US? (The “gangsters” who encouraged Burns and Rafay to indulge in the most pathetic teenage braggadocio I’ve ever witnessed belonged to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.)

The saddest part of this tale: hearing Burns’ father, David, describe his prison visits. (Burns, serving a life sentence without possibility of parole, has exhausted all his appeals.) The strangest part: the way James Jude Konat, like all the prosecutors in this series, was so happy to perform for the camera, more game-show host than lawyer.

It feels obscene to move on, but move on I must. W1A (18 September, 10pm) is enjoying a bewilderingly long life (this is series three). Is the joke still funny? I think it’s wearing thin, though this may be born of my own recent encounter with the BBC’s bizarre machinery (humiliating, in a word).

Siobhan Sharpe (Jessica Hynes) and her team of media morons have been bought by a Dutch company, Fun, where good ideas are celebrated with silent discos. One idea is a YouTube-style platform, BBC Me. Meanwhile, Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville) is helming – nice BBC word – a group that will deliver the corporation’s “More of Less Initiative”, and a cross-dressing footballer has successfully plonked his bum on the Match of the Day sofa. Business as usual, in other words. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left