Elif Batuman seems stuck inside her own brilliant mind. The author of a widely acclaimed collection of essays titled “The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them,” she has now published her first novel, “The Idiot,” a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale, a quirky, somewhat disquieting meditation on disengagement.
Her protagonist, Selin, is an 18-year-old Turkish girl, the daughter of secular Turkish immigrants who raised her in a genteel suburb of New Jersey. Beginning her first year at Harvard, she is attempting to navigate difficult roommates and freshman seminars and living on her own after years spent under her mother’s strong guidance. But from the get-go, we sense that Selin is cut off from others. At a time in our lives when most of us are falling into the wrong beds and risking all sorts of humiliation and exposure to find someone to be genuinely close to, she seems to be doing whatever she can to run away from such entanglements.
The only thing Selin seems certain about is her love of languages and literature, particularly the Russian masters, and her growing desire to become a writer. But writers deal with emotion and vulnerability, and Selin seems intent upon keeping her emotional life straitjacketed behind a mask of control. Batuman has spoken in interviews about her attraction to stoicism as a philosophy for controlling the turbulence that life brings forth, and we can see that stoicism vibrating through Selin, who is painfully awkward and self-conscious.
The riskiest venture Selin undertakes involves Ivan, a Hungarian graduate student in mathematics. They begin an intense email relationship that allows them to feel freer to express their fantasies and intellectual preoccupations. The year is 1995, and email is a relatively new tool. Selin is attracted to its power, marveling at how “each message contained the one that had come before, so your own words came back to you — all the words you threw out, they came back. It was like the story of your relations with others, the story of the intersection of your life with other lives, was constantly being recorded and updated, and you could check it at any time.”
Slowly, their messages become more complex and personal, and Selin finds herself consumed by his notes and her responses. She writes movingly, “I felt dizzy from the sense of intimacy and remoteness. Everything he said came from so thoroughly outside myself. I wouldn’t have been able to invent or guess any of it.” But when she walks with him after class, they fumble awkwardly to maintain a conversation. The magic exists, it seems, only in their email exchanges.
There are many rambling pages throughout this narrative that have no apparent purpose. Empty discussions with friends, acquaintances and teachers seem inserted for mere distraction. Even when Selin once dares to visit the school psychologist for advice about Ivan, the meeting is cut short by her own ambivalence. She is disturbed by the psychologist’s warnings about her pervasive evasiveness and what it is masking. Yearning and sexual desire are suppressed by long runs along the Charles River, where she blasts her Walkman, perhaps hoping to blot out her resistance.
Selin admits that the endless reading she has done the past year has given her little sustenance or counsel as to how to live her life or find a place for herself in it.
In what feels like the book’s climax, she visits Ivan’s family home and meets his parents and many sisters. They spend an unusually idyllic day canoeing on the Danube, and their conversation falters but has moments of sustained integrity. After Ivan shows her the room his mother has prepared for her, Selin takes out her journal and records her thoughts. “I kept thinking about the uneven quality of time,” she writes, “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 the fullness had been an aberration.”
We feel Selin once again withdrawing into herself, and we know by now that there is no way to stop her. Both Batuman and her alter ego seem not to have learned that there is no sanctuary — not in the outside world and most certainly not in the deepest recesses of our minds. Both realms are fraught with unseen dangers.
Batuman’s book is a somewhat agitating contemplation about what it feels like when you choose to take yourself out of the world and live inside your thoughts. In some ways, her novel mirrors a growing and upsetting trend among so many young people who seem to have given up on the possibility of love and jubilation and euphoria before they have even tasted it.
Elaine Margolin is a writer and critic in New York.
By Elif Batuman
Penguin. 423 pp. $27