The Idiot by Elif Batuman

2774F1A1-1DCD-4105-B865-87CE624B2734Here’s my attempt at penning down a review for The Idiot, having now had some time away from the book. I found The Idiot wholly original, thwarting traditional narrative techniques and feigning all importance to the plot, twist or thrill. It’s a story that acutely captures the ordinary mundanities and absurdities of life in sharp relief while still managing to stay engaging and entertaining for almost 500 pages. We follow Selin, an 18-year-old, born to Turkish-American immigrants, for the first year of her university life in Harvard and a summer spent volunteering in Hungary.

Selin as a character isn’t the sum of her parts, her physical appearance or her life experiences. Rather she’s constantly perceiving and defining the world around her with an unconscious passivity that in a way, defines her as well. There’s a sense of disillusionment when she begins university and realizes she’s not ‘special’ in any way and the sudden realization that your so-called achievements up until then, are at par with the rest of the cohort.

“I kept thinking about the uneven quality of time – the way it was almost always so empty, and then with no warning came a few days that felt so dense and alive and real that it seemed indisputable that that was what life was, that its real nature had finally been revealed. But then time passed and unthinkably grew dead again, and it turned out that that fullness had been an aberration and might never come back.”

Language is an inherent theme in the novel. The limitations of how it’s structure can limit the way you define and perceive reality and the way your native language dictates the way you think. Selin is enrolled in a linguistics course and spends time learning Russian in the first half and learning Hungarian in the second. She also teaches English as a second language. The idea of language and communication (or lack thereof especially when you don’t have a common tongue to converse in) is a fascinating underlying theme of the entire novel.

“Right” I said, nodding energetically and trying to determine whether any of the rectangles in my peripheral vision was a box of tissues. Unfortunately, they were all books. The professor was talking about the differences between creative and academic writing. I kept nodding. I was thinking about the structural equivalence between a tissue box: both consisted of slips of white paper in cardboard case; yet – and this was ironic – was there was very little functional equivalence, especially if the book wasn’t yours. Those were the kinds of things I thought about all the time, even though they were neither pleasant or useful. I had no idea what you were supposed to be thinking about.”

 

Mathematics is another subject that frequently makes an appearance in the novel. Selin is deeply infatuated by Ivan, a Russian Mathematics senior at Harvard. The first half they spend exchanging email musings on a variety of topics. The novel is dotted with interesting speculations on math and how that might define reality more than physics. The Selin-Ivan equation is interesting & frustrating in its own way, like two planets in parallel orbits, they exert a force on each other without ever colliding.

While all this might seem pretentious and over-the-top, it’s anything but that. The Idiot doesn’t try to be intentionally funny or smart. It’s completely unassuming and ordinary just like it’s the protagonist and that makes it truly extraordinary. I can see how this book is really not for everybody. But if you gel with it, it could just be your jam. I’ll leave you with a quote from the book that reflects just that.

“It was decreasingly possible to imagine explaining it to anyone. Whoever it was would jump out of a window from boredom. And yet there I was watching the accumulation in real time, and not only was I not bored, but it was all I could think about.”

Rating: 4.5/5

Thoughts on the Cover Design

6819BF8C-22DE-4CA0-BFAA-736626A4AA91Let’s pause for a moment and discuss this gorgeous cover design by Finnish illustrator, Aino – Maija Metsola. A little research led me to realize that she also designed the revised Vintage Classics editions of Virginia Woolf, with the trademark splash of colours and patterns. At first glance, I initially thought the minimalistic US cover design of rock against a plain pink background is more resonant of the actual content of the story. However, having now read more than half of the book, though the US cover is a more direct, witty take on ‘The Idiot’, this UK cover design is actually far more reflective of the book in a very internalized, abstract way. The Idiot is essentially the story of Selin navigating university life at Harvard in the ’90s while acutely perceiving the world around her and everyday absurdities that go unnoticed in fantastic detail. This chaos of colour and pattern communicates that very surge of sensory overload from the world around us that we everyday experience but deign to pay attention to just because it has faded to an omniscient noise in the background. And interestingly, despite the chaos of colour, there’s an inherent calmness that pervades the design which is precisely the mood of this book.

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