Do you remember your first year of college? Do you remember the anxiety and anticipation mixing in your mind as you awaited your first day? Do you remember those sleepless nights spent staring at the ceiling, waiting for the rest of your life to finally begin?
You might remember, but Selin, the protagonist of Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot, definitely won’t. Her excitement gets swept away by the jolts of confusion and bizarreness that make up her freshman year of college. Selin’s bafflement at the world around her can be understood by anyone who has ever been freshly eighteen and thrust into adulthood with no preparation for what’s to come.
Nothing that can be regarded as “plot” really happens in The Idiot. But to appreciate this novel, plot makes no difference. What’s more important are the various singular incidents that Selin witnesses that demonstrate the weirdness and surreal quality of adult life. For instance, when Selin and another student make use of a communal shower, the other student cheerfully remarks how the showers look like the ones “in concentration camps” before jumping in. “In adult life the hits never stopped coming,” Selin remarks dryly. In The Idiot, Batuman has successfully captured and dissected that disorienting quality of early adulthood, when everything everyone does feels like a practical joke being played on you.
The Idiot is filled with pithy observations like the one above, because Selin is constantly observing and analyzing. Yet, she’s repeatedly defined by her inability to express herself, a trait that frustrates the reader at times. Using the character of Selin, Batuman depicts a typical highly intelligent, emotionally immature student–a kind of person I assume there is no shortage of at elite universities like Harvard. Selin’s most dramatic arc comes in the form of an intense e-mail correspondence she has with a senior– she can only approximate intimacy when distanced from him by a computer.
The most critical of Selin’s observations emerges in the last line of the novel, as she reflects on her first year: “I hadn’t learned what I had wanted to about how language worked. I hadn’t learned anything at all.” Here, Batuman ingeniously indicates the greatest revelation of adulthood–that all of us are the titular, Dostoyevskian Idiot, fumbling around amongst missed connections and failed quests of self-knowledge, only to arrive at the conclusion that we’ll never really know what it is that we’re doing.
Written by Neha T.