Book Review: The Idiot

By Samantha Harford

The Idiot (2018) – Elif Batuman

Batuman’s intimacy with language will make you fall in love with words all over again. Her heroine Selin Karadağ is a Harvard undergraduate in 1995, a new era of communication and a perfect time period for a coming of age novel. The first line immediately introduces you to Batuman’s central theme of the importance of communication and language in our lives: “I didn’t know what email was until I got to college”. This new medium is totally unnerving for Selin and as she looks upon the glowing list of digital conversations on the computer she describes it as being “like a story of your relations with others, the story of the intersection of your life with other lives”. To her, somehow, something as simple as an email presents a detailed and introspective view of people’s lives in a way never observed before. She is completely right.

Analogies like this are laced throughout the novel, and Batuman’s voice encourages your brain to press pause on the hubbub of life and look at things separately, more closely. Wide-eyed, Selin asks all the usual questions a new undergraduate might: How can I make friends? What do I want from college? Although Selin may not reach the final answer to her questions, her processes of thought, fragmented articulations and observations mesh with such intrinsic value that they could even be considered poetic. What Selin does not expect, though, is the sheer complexity and depth of relationships developed through her college email. A relationship more real than anything she has experienced in person, with Hungarian Mathematics student Ivan.

Batuman’s writing style, her linkage between people, language and feeling is almost cathartic to read. She has a way of making total sense and leaving you utterly confused at the same time. She makes something as small as taking coins from your pocket become all-consuming, every syllable filled with that kind of deep attachment and lust that transports you back to your very first sweetheart. Yet, that is the beauty of Batuman’s work. The author’s experience as a noted New Yorker writer is evident in The Idiot and there isn’t really anything else like it. Her words simultaneously remove you from reality and place you there all at once.

The Idiot is a must read on anybody’s summer list who wants their outlook on life pushed, pulled and moulded into something incredible.