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
Jonathan Cape, 423pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 12 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions