One of the few things I still remember from a philosophy seminar I took my freshman year of college is the idea of the manifold. The manifold terrified me. It referred to the undifferentiated miasma of reality, a kaleidoscopic churn of impressions and experiences and objects and people. We were taught that our brains used stencils called “concepts” to make sense of the anarchy but that those categories, being arbitrary, often bled together. Thinking about the manifold, 18-year-old me felt herself falling into a kind of fugue state. A fugue state, though, is a terrible name for the descending sense of dissociation, as a fugue, in music, describes the artful arrangement of voices, a sort of anti-bedlam. Now, considering the failure of the words fugue state to capture my quote-unquote fugue state only makes the memory more anxiety-provoking. And that is what it is like to read Elif Batuman’s The Idiot.
To be clear, The Idiot is wonderful. Batuman, a staff writer at the New Yorker and the author of the sparkling autobiographical essay collection The Possessed (2010), has brave and original ideas about what a “novel” might mean and no qualms about flouting literary convention. She is endlessly beguiled by the possibilities and shortcomings of language. Her protagonist Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, spends most of the book in a philosophical crisis. Selin, having arrived (as Batuman did) for her freshman year at Harvard in the mid-’90s, obsesses over why the world is the way it is, and not some other unaccountable way. She enrolls in arcane-sounding courses on “constructed worlds” and the theory of language. She applies to a freshman literature seminar because “everyone said [doing so] was of utmost importance” and shows up to her interview with a cold. “I was thinking about the structural equivalences between a tissue box and a book,” she says, in her signature deadpan. “Both consisted of slips of white paper in a cardboard case; yet—and this was ironic—there was very little functional equivalence, especially if the book wasn’t yours. These were the kinds of things I thought about all the time, even though they were neither pleasant nor useful. I had no idea what you were supposed to be thinking about.”
What are you supposed to be thinking about? What are you supposed to be doing? Selin’s preoccupation with sweeping, unanswerable conundrums sometimes threatens to paralyze her. But the words pleasant and useful suggest a possible way forward: They invoke the Roman poet Horace’s two-pronged injunction for art—that it be both dulce et utile. Selin’s worldly new friend Svetlana observes that she “lives by aesthetic principles.” Her consciousness is steeped in erudition and poetry, her quirky opinions molded by authorities as diverse as Epictetus, Dostoevsky, and Dr. Seuss. (Visiting Hungary, the protagonist reflects, felt “increasingly like reading War and Peace,” with outré characters popping up “every five minutes.”) Yet books also let Selin down. Their shapeliness and logic defies the messy randomness of her experience. They renege on their promises. When one of her professors assigns the French novel Against Nature, Selin hopes the story will shed light on “someone who viewed things the way I did—someone trying to live a life unmarred by laziness, cowardice, and conformity.” But “I was wrong,” she discovers. “It was more a book about interior decoration.”
In her beginning Russian class, Selin and her peers are occasionally called upon to re-enact scenes from Nina in Siberia, a text about a Soviet woman who loses one lover and gains another. “What Slavic 101 couldn’t name didn’t exist,” Batuman writes; Nina’s reality remains untroubled by conditionals and subjunctives. Selin playfully appropriates the character’s identity to email Ivan, an older Hungarian student she has a crush on. But the ending of the novel disappoints her. “Everything about it seemed false,” she thinks. “I felt like I had been misled and then abandoned by someone I had trusted. … For the mystery to be tied up so falsely, for it to turn out to be just a romantic comedy, felt like a terrible betrayal.” What seduces Selin about Nina in Siberia (and makes it useful for her own seduction, which does not proceed at all like the one in the book) also frustrates her. The plot fails to reflect the tenuous, provisional nature of real life, its ad hoc strangeness. In her obsession with contingency and nonsense, the protagonist resembles Batuman, whose literary depictions of courtship are more erratic than anything assigned in Slavic 101: At one point, two characters on a date bury strawberries in the ground for no discernible reason. Batuman, as allergic to contrivance as the Nina novelist is dependent on it, likes to end her dialogues with a stubbornly unrevealing line of small talk, as if challenging the reader to imbue “Oh” or “I don’t know” with aesthetic splendor. The same goes for Selin, hyperalert to irrationality, the type of person mentally pulled out of a squash game by the observation that “the blue rubber ball was so small, so fast and crazy. To think this world was too deterministic for some people!”
In an essay for n+1, Batuman argued that literature should encompass “all the irrelevant garbage, the effort to redeem that garbage, to integrate it into Life itself, to redraw the boundaries of Life Itself.” Her novel is gloriously stuffed with detritus, with characters that serve no narrative purpose and details that mean nothing beyond themselves. It is also, in a curious way, alive to coincidence. After a year of roommates and coursework and pining after Ivan, who escalates the relationship from email to occasional late-night walks around campus, Selin travels to Hungary to teach English for a program run by one of Ivan’s friends. She meets up with Svetlana in Paris, where they see an art film about a man at a bar waiting for someone named Mahmut Bey.
Near the end, the bartender asked who Mahmut Bey was. “Mahmut Bey is—coldness,” said the man, through his annoying smile. “Mahmut Bey is wetness. Mahmut Bey is friendlessness, winelessness.”
Later, Selin’s Hungarian host takes her to her “favorite place, the natural history museum, where they had a very special animal. The animal was large, and didn’t exist.” After some back-and-forth, Reni finally explains that the creature is a “MAMMUT,” a mammoth skeleton. “There it was … unencumbered by flesh or fur, each rib looked so elegant—high, vaulted, marble white, like the most graceful bridge,” Batuman writes. What have these bones of a long dead animal—an animal that “[doesn’t] exist”—to do with loneliness? At the same time, how could Mahmut Bey and the mammut not be one absence, one vessel of longing? Mahmut/the mammut inform Selin’s halting love story, which is also shaped by Ivan’s elliptical words on the screen and his nonresidence in the Hungarian village. Together, all of these elements add up to the feeling, in The Idiot, that texts and humans are interchangeable loci of mystery and desire. In allowing her language and details to pile up randomly, Batuman makes them more than they might otherwise be. She gives presence and power to what previously “didn’t exist.”
Reading Ivan’s emails, Selin tells us, she grows “dizzy from the sense of intimacy and remoteness.” That’s the experience of coming to know someone in a romantic relationship, but it is also the feeling of connecting to another consciousness via a book. Ivan and Selin communicate through the verse of Pablo Neruda and the dialogue of Nina in Siberia; they argue about the moral imagination of Crime and Punishment. If the graduate student occasionally seems boring or disposable to the larger plot, it is because he is, frankly, redundant: The central drama of The Idiot remains a young woman using words to find her way in the world.
It is a pleasure to watch Batuman render this process with the wit, sensitivity, and relish of someone who’s successfully emerged on the other side of it. For all of her fascination with linguistic puzzle boxes, the author tempers her protagonist’s intellectual vertigo with maturity and common sense. “We got off at Euclid Circle,” Selin says, recounting a subway ride with cool-girl Svetlana. “There was no circle—just a concrete platform with a pay phone and a sign that read EUCLID CIRCLE.”
I thought Euclid would have been mad. “That’s so typical of your attitude,” Svetlana said. “You always think everyone is angry. Try to have some perspective. It’s over two thousand years after his death, he’s in Boston for the first time, they’ve named something after him-why should his first reaction be to get pissed off?”
This is a lovely moment, a chance for Selin to mull over the verbal deceptions and sleights of hand that excite her likable nerdery. Euclid, a mathematician, wanted to transcribe the pure laws of the universe. He wanted to use immutable shapes to carve up the manifold. But the manifold always fights back: The so-called circle isn’t a circle, and the geometer’s name only underscores the gap between perfect ideas and their imperfect realizations in our disheveled world. So then what? Batuman seems to ask. Do you go into crisis? Do you stop taking the train? The answer, she suggests, is more modest: Just “have some perspective.” No one’s freshman year lasts forever.
The Idiot by Elif Batuman. Penguin Press.