books, Reading, Women Writers

“The Idiot” by Elif Batuman

“I knew I had no one to blame but myself. If my mother told me not to do something, I didn’t do it. Everyone’s mother told them not to do things, but I was the only one who listened. The eternal pauper in the great marketplace of ideas and of the world, I had nothing to teach anyone. I didn’t have anything anyone wanted. I reread his message and looked straight in the face of this terrible indignity.”

Elif Batuman’s forthcoming novel, “The Idiot”, is the story of Selin, a young woman 41ezkvfrwnldiscovering and creating herself during the turbulent college years. Born of Turkish immigrants, Selin experiences an otherness common among first generation Americans – she is neither here nor there. In America she is often assumed to be an immigrant.

“Peter complimented my idiomatic English and asked how long I had been in America. ‘I’ve always lived here,’ I said. ‘Always?’ He looked startled, like maybe he thought that I meant since 1776. ‘I mean, I was born here, and never left.’ ‘Oh, that’s funny. Ivan identified you as being Turkish.’ ‘No, I’m from New Jersey.'”

When Selin visits Turkey each summer, she is equally “other” among her family, teased for her American-ness.

“I was in fact the tallest living member of my family, male or female. My cousins said it was because I had grown up eating rich American foods and leading a life of leisure.”

Selin is a freshman at Harvard University, believing she will someday be a writer, but unable to summon ambition or gumption enough to pursue writing.

“Even though I had a deep conviction that I was good at writing, and that in some way I already was a writer, this conviction was completely independent of my having ever written anything, or being able to imagine ever writing anything, that I thought anyone would like to read.”

Selin flounders a bit, lacking confidence and motivation, swimming along through college in a sleep-deprived haze that is nightmarish and all-to-real. During the summer after her freshman year, Selin has a characteristic moment of tongue-in-cheek insight into her bizarre path.

“Meredith Wittman was doing a summer internship at New York magazine, and for a moment now I reflected on the fact that, although she and I both wanted to be writers, she was going about it by interning at a magazine, whereas my method apparently involved sitting at this table in a Hungarian village trying to formulate the phrase “musically talented” in Russian, so I could say something encouraging by proxy to an off-putting child whose father had just punched him in the stomach.”

Batuman’s characters and her writing are sardonic, dreamy, and cruel – all in the best ways. “The Idiot” is hard to turn away from. Selin’s life in limbo is neither tragic nor inspiring, but eminently compelling. The writing is sharp and full of wit and sarcasm. Batuman so successfully inhabits her heroine that I felt obliged to join her, submerging myself in the depths of Selin’s story, the muck and mire of her thoughts. “The Idiotic” was a pleasure to read and a welcome escape from my own dark thoughts.

Thanks to Penguin Press for a complimentary ARC in exchange for a fair and honest review. “The Idiot” will be published by Penguin Press in the US on March 14, 2017.

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