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BOOK REVIEW: The Idiot, by Elif Batuman

This book can be read on many levels – for a linguist like me, its linguistic observations were a blast of fresh air, for a historian it is rich with commentary, and for a writer or avid reader, the allusions are legion, including the title, which pays homage to the eponymous novel by Dostoevsky. (My upcoming book is entitled THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY, an homage to Henry James, and the recent MRS. OSMOND, by John Banville, is an imagining of Isabel Archer’s life after the James PORTRAIT ends. Maybe we’re re-establishing the precedents of our literary canon after a long period of wondering where we really came from.)

The Idiot is funny, but more than that, it is original in thought and execution.

First, her language. She sneaks up on the reader, “The French director had died tragically, by falling off a barstool.” (That’s a funny enough situation, but there’s more…) “They say it may have been suicide.” Or “Every now and then, a book had something … in it, and it was some comfort. But it wasn’t quite the same thing as having an opinion.” Her metaphors are gloriously original “The sky looked like a load of glowing grayish laundry that someone had washed with a red shirt.” Or “This was an amazing sight. And yet, I didn’t know where to put it. It just seemed to sit there, like a fur hat whose apparatchik had been airbrushed away.”

There is incidental philosophy, thrown into the middle of no place in particular. “I knew ‘midway the journey’ was supposed to mean midlife crisis. But to me it seemed that one had always been midway the journey of our life, and would be maybe right up until the moment of death.” Or “The adjunct instructor also said stupid things, but they were in Spanish, so you learned more.” Or “What was ‘Cinderella,’ if not an allegory for the fundamental unhappiness of shoe shopping?”

I have never written a book review which was essentially written by the author, but the many délices in her book speak for themselves. Only once did I find a cheap haha, “On the table were a sign-in sheet, a dead spider plant, and a dead spider.” Imagine reading a book where the quality of each sentence is so high that a single dud of an image (in my opinion) stands out!

The book at times strays into something like the comedy routine of a very smart comedian, but that would not make it literature. There is an underlying theme and story which hang on a few characters; the protagonist Selin herself, her mother, tall, handsome Ivan, and her friend Svetlana. Other people with strange habits and even stranger names prance around, appearing, disappearing, each serving a purpose.

The humor makes the profundity taste like sugar. Before the story begins, Batuman quotes Marcel Proust, “…but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything.” Selin has a lot to learn. The story is a seemingly unending series of missteps, missed targets, periods of muteness when she should be speaking, of stillness when she should be moving. It becomes tiresome. How could she be so clueless? Especially regarding Ivan. She lets Ivan get away and we wonder, so what?

Batuman daringly leaves the relief of resolution for the last few pages when a depressed and confused Selin reflects, “I still had the old idea of being a writer, but that was being, not doing. It didn’t say what you were supposed to do.” She cannot gather her feet under her after her disillusionment. “I lost the strength to go anywhere or do anything, or smile, or hold my mouth up in a normal position when people talked to me. My face just felt like a cake.” Selin and her mother visit a hilariously surreal golf course in Turkey, leaving this reader diverted from the point by outloud laughter, then the book ends with such integrity – no happy ending or banal philosophizing, she just admits that “I hadn’t learned anything at all,” which is the prelude, we all know this, to learning something.

The Idiot is available on