We’re all dummies pretending that we’re not. In Elif Batuman’s brick sized novel, The Idiot, she proves just this. We learn that an idiot can look like anything – even a pack of scholarly youths navigating their time at Harvard. The book follows Selin in her first year at Harvard and her journey of learning how to become a person. She falls for a boy who is merely a pen pal, and their strange romance (which I’m not sure constitutes as romance), leads her to a summer spent in Europe.
Selin goes to Hungary to teach English and has a series of underwhelming encounters with locals, friends, and her not-so-boyfriend, Ivan. Not much happens in the book, and that’s what made it so great. Batsman’s writing focuses on the hilarious and unimpressed thoughts of Selin, making the experiences seem realistic. The Idiot, filled with frank insights on human interaction and Selin’s bitterness, impressionable, and deeply self-doubting personality, sent me back to my first year of University— and also kind of last week.
Selin’s character is banal and hilarious, and Batuman captures the effort it takes to force yourself to participate in above all, pointless debates about fiction or film that often take place in pretentious University classrooms. Selin jots down, “Cow’s eye” after learning that the director Buñuel slit a cow’s eye instead of a humans in his film, capturing just how little is retained in class, and how hard it can sometimes be to find meaning in education.
Selin’s pretension and obsession over not being conventional is hilarious and embarrassing to read. It reminds me of being seventeen and angry, upset at my parents for asking me about school and not constantly acknowledging the world’s meta problems. Selin and I’s shared youthful anger is encapsulated in the encounter she has with a friend who asks her “How’s it going?”, leaving Selin physically unable to respond. “I know you despise convention, but you shouldn’t let it get to the point that you’re incapable of saying, ‘Fine, thanks,’ just because it isn’t an original, brilliant utterance. You can’t be unconventional in every aspect of life. People will get the wrong idea,” her friend bitterly replies.
When Selin gets to Hungary she comes across even more people she is unable to keep up conventional conversation with. But like many of us, when it comes to the evil kiss of romance, Selin is even more out of touch with what to do with her mouth and the words that come out of it. This book completely nailed the over dramatic devotions of love we make when we’re young and the shitty ill fated situations we put ourselves in. Her awkward encounters with physical romance are even better, and in my favourite line ever, Selin admits, “I knew from Shakespeare class that ears were sexual.” Isn’t everything we know about love from a bored teacher trying to force us to read Shakespeare? The Idiot beautifully reminded me why I do not wish I was a freshman in college and how I still kind of am that same person. The Idiot is a funny reminder that no one is cool or smart, and paints the perfect portrait of young adult pretension, embarrassment, and misplaced emotions.