Reviews — From the March 2017 issue

No Fool

Elif Batuman takes on the M.F.A.

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Now Batuman has made good on her original intention. The Idiot, her debut novel, tells the story of an aspiring writer’s first encounter with the academy. Like The Possessed, it is a book about books — its title, also lifted from Dostoevsky, suggests the incorrigibly intertextual nature of the author’s imagination. A loose, baggy monster, full of irrelevant garbage and needless words — and all the richer for it — the book implicitly makes an argument for what a twenty-first-century novel might be.

It is also written against program fiction’s preoccupation with identity. Batuman captures a moment when the smart daughter of immigrant parents might go to an Ivy League school and manage to not feel particularly concerned about questions of gender and ethnicity, and reach the age of eighteen without having gained any sexual experience, not because of any moralistic repression but because she grew up considering her worth in entirely separate terms. Selin Karadag, The Idiot’s protagonist and narrator, was raised in New Jersey by Turkish parents, just like the author. She, too, enrolls at Harvard in the mid-Nineties with a plan to study linguistics and is drawn instead to Russian. She is something of an outsider, and yet this seems less a matter of identity than of what Batuman has called “novelistic alienation,” the realization that “lived experience doesn’t resemble literature.”

In contrast to the program fiction that Batuman deplores, The Idiot is self-consciously steeped in literature. Books, from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky to Dr. Seuss, are Selin’s lens on the world and on herself. In her first-semester introductory Russian class, she encounters Nina in Siberia, the story of a young Soviet physicist who is unlucky in love, which uses only concepts and grammar that are covered in the course. “What Slavic 101 couldn’t name didn’t exist”: it’s a world of manageable communication, free from the unfamiliar vocabulary and temporal ambiguity that can make everyday language so treacherous. As the students’ expertise grows, so does the complexity of Nina’s world — a process that mirrors the growing emotional and intellectual complexity of Selin’s own world.

Selin wants to be a writer — indeed, she feels that she already is a writer, although this conviction is “completely independent of my having ever written anything, or being able to imagine ever writing anything, that I thought anyone would like to read.” She is naturally a talented, eccentric observer of physical details and other people — a heap of long underwear at Filene’s Basement becomes “a pile of souls torn out of their bodies,” a classmate’s contorted posture reminds her of a cruller — but words are tricky. When Ivan, a tall senior from Hungary who is in her Russian class, brings her to a bar and proposes a second round, she is dismayed: “I thought getting ‘a drink’ meant you only had to have one drink.” Like Dostoevsky’s idiot, Batuman’s possesses a naïveté that is a source of both uncommon insight and uncomfortable ignorance. This may sound similar to the program ethos that regards innocence as a quality to be guarded, but Batuman makes her protagonist’s condition an obstacle to be overcome. For Selin, ignorance is a source of shame, and in contrast to the self-stymied program writer, she confronts that shame head-on. She wants to learn her way out.

Selin may know she doesn’t like the taste of beer, but in other, more important ways, she remains uncertain about her own preferences. What does she want? What does she think? She’s not sure. Selin watches her female peers, especially her new best friend, Svetlana, with wary fascination: “Where did they get so much confidence, and so many opinions, and such complicated dresses?” She herself is almost perversely bad at getting dressed: she buys shoes that look like they’re made of “waterlogged cardboard,” a shapeless overcoat that reminds her of Gogol’s. The project of dressing is wrapped up in the performance of femininity, an undertaking that baffles Selin. (“What made her a girlfriend?” she wonders, looking at a photo of Ivan’s ex.) But it’s also a problem of self-presentation, of confronting the notion that other people see you differently than you see yourself.

Selin is excellent at seeing others, even as she struggles to imagine how they might see her. Although she can be obtuse, she is more often painfully sensitive; her efforts to understand the world, to absorb its lessons, are earnest and tireless. Early in her second semester, she visits a math class that Ivan is T.A.-ing:

To see Ivan standing in front of a blackboard was somehow terribly embarrassing. And yet, you were supposed to look at him — that’s why he was there. There was something puppet-like about how he paced back and forth, wrote on the board, and flung out his arm to point at what he had written. His shirt had come untucked at the side. He was working really hard. He used the word “suffer” three times. I couldn’t remember any other instructor mentioning suffering even once all year.

Ivan is trying to explain open and closed sets. Selin looks on as he draws a house, a chimney, and an enormous cloud of smoke. “The house is inside the world,” he says. “You can be inside the house or outside the house, but you can’t leave the world.” Selin thinks:

“Is there smoke in the house? If it’s not suffocating, I will stay indoors; if it proves too much, I’ll leave. Always remember — the door is open.” That’s what Epictetus wrote about suicide.

Next to the house, Ivan drew a stick figure. The head was level with the chimney. In Turkish, if you said, “Her head hasn’t reached the chimney yet,” it meant she was still young enough to get married.

“Is he outside or inside?” said Ivan. “You see, he’s outside the house, but inside the world.”

At the end of class, I left immediately, before the clock tower finished striking ten. I was inside the world, but at least I was outside that room.

Evoking Selin’s combined acuity, anxiety, innocence, horniness, and erudition, the scene shows how she proceeds at all times with her sense of scholarship intact. The classroom provides her occasion to confront the problem of desire — she brings both her reading and her personal history to bear on the matter at hand. Selin is a self-consciously literary heroine, and Harvard, with its well-trod cobblestones, is, like the literary canon, “both new and familiar.” In Batuman’s view, integrating the new and the familiar, the personal and the canonical, is precisely what the novel ought to do. But this integration isn’t simply an intellectual process; it’s what happens in all coming-of-age stories. When, in the book’s one sexually explicit scene, Selin describes the sensation of masturbating with a handheld showerhead, she also finds it “both new and familiar.”

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