Love is an Idiocy
by Joe Linker
by Elif Batuman,
Penguin Random House, 423 pp.
A tale told by an idiot signifying nothing might benefit from Walter Mosley’s advice in “This Year You Write Your Novel” to avoid first person narration unless you have an enthralling character. Elif Batuman’s The Idiot successfully ignores Mosley’s suggestion, proving the dull precisely who we want to hear from in our fast and furious life and times. For what is dull? Selin is the self-referential idiot in her first year at Harvard, not as buttoned down a gig as you might think, where, in 1995, email is as new and troublesome as knuckle balls, amid formal and staid if frivolous competition of classes. It seems the absence of body language is to blame for the ambiguities rife in email tweaking out a relationship. Selin is not the kind of girl to respond too quickly to a broadcast invitation to Daytona for Spring Break, not unless, of course, Ivan might be there. “Ready to peel the tomato?” I thought I might be hearing Pookie’s voice from “The Sterile Cuckoo,” Pookie, an earlier idiot.
We might learn that love is a fallacy either by falling in love at the slippery slope age or by reading Max Schulman’s short story about raccoon coats and golden girls. Gold in a girl is important because gold is pure but also soft and malleable. “Cool was I and logical. Keen, calculating, perspicacious, acute and astute. I was all of these…And think of it! I was only eighteen.” Oh, to be 18 again? Once is probably enough. “Fads, I submit, are the very negation of reason. To be swept up in every new craze that comes along, to surrender oneself to idiocy just because everybody else is doing it, this, to me, is the acme of mindlessness.” That’s all Schulman’s first person idiot, but is falling in love a fad?
Selin’s depiction of Frosh (a word she would probably never use) life at Harvard, as revealed through a cascading series of unmonumental anecdotes or existentially connected episodes, is frothless. There is a bit of ecstasy, but it’s a pill. She sees films. She may or may not bother giving the reader the film’s title. In her micro-brief anecdotal review of the film “about Pablo Neruda’s mailman,” for example, she does not give us the title, and we learn almost nothing of her critical or emotional response. The film is the 1995 Italian Il Postino, which won the Academy Award for music. It’s about the dangers of poetry in the hands of a proletariat. It’s also a multilayered (post WW II, Catholic, impoverished fishing village) comically political love story. The film is an adaptation of Antonio Skarmeta’s Burning Patience, in turn a fictional account of Neruda’s actual political exile off the coast of Chile. In the film, the island is moved to off of Italy. We hear about the film in one paragraph of The Idiot and forget about it in the next. I’d have forgotten about it here if it didn’t happen to be a film I’m familiar with, and I wondered how many of Selin’s similarly vague or incomplete references I might be missing. But this is her style. She’s being neither precocious nor pretentious. She’s being unmonumental.
The Idiot relies on anecdotal and episodic narrative realism. Micro episodes at school give way in Part Two to a slightly tighter thread of events, though these events can scarcely be called a plot, unless a plot may consist of a collage of characters. “Like reading War and Peace: new characters came up every five minutes, with their unusual names and distinctive locutions, and you had to pay attention to them for a time, even though you might never see them again for the whole rest of the book,” Selin considers. And we have already met multiple such characters in The Idiot. Some come and go without names: “…there was no way that guy, the professor, was going to tell me anything useful”; the adjunct professor who “also said stupid things, but they were in Spanish, so you learned more.” Selin volunteers to tutor a couple of GED students off campus, foil characters that by comparison help isolate and highlight Selin’s experience, because in their opinions, it’s doubtful she is going to tell them anything useful. Not that any of it matters, because knowledge is not happiness: “Overwhelmed by happiness, the little girl began to sing. She was so happy – but she didn’t know what anything really was. She didn’t know what anything meant. She knew even less than we did.” In any case, we never see them again.
Wherever Selin happens to find herself, she seems like a stranger in a strange land. She lives in the moment, recording detail after detail of her immediate environment, what she sees and hears and touches and smells and tastes. The Idiot unfolds paragraph after paragraph like layers of an onion or leaves of an artichoke: “One of the most remarkable things about the giant sculpted deep-fried onion was its powerful resemblance to an artichoke. Ralph told me about the onion and artichoke theories of humanity, which he had learned in sociology class. According to the artichoke theory, man had some inner essence, or ‘heart’; according to the onion theory, once you had unwrapped all the layers of society off of man, there was nothing there. Seen from this perspective, the idea of an onion masquerading as an artichoke seemed sinister, even sociopathic.” Can a novel masquerade as an onion masquerading as an artichoke?
The Idiot is structured into two parts, “Part One,” containing the chapters “Fall” and “Spring,” which take place at Harvard, and “Part Two,” containing chapters “June” through “August,” which take place on the road: Paris; Hungary, where Selin has a five week appointment as an English teacher; and we end up in Turkey (on the tail wind of a couple of very long and funny airplane rides). The Idiot’s antagonist is probably Ivan, who stands frustratingly in the way of Selin getting what she wants, but could also be Selin herself, unable to navigate quickly through the unrequited zone – well, then the unrequited zone would be the antagonist. Svetlana is wonderful as a major foil character to Selin. Their locutions are completely different. No one talks the same in The Idiot. No wonder everyone is so hard for the idiot to understand. The Idiot is not to be confused with Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, or with Duras’s The Lover, or with Jong’s Fear of Flying, but that’s where I put it on my bookshelf. Were Elif to offer such a reading list for a Stanford class I would sign up. Alas, “pas assez, pas assez,” not to mention too late for this old geezer.
“The street looked empty but was full of words,” Selin says, and it is her facility with language that propels the relationship the reader easily joins. She has a canny command of metaphor, lighting similes like cigarettes, fresh and bouncy, like fireflies: “the smell of salami and smoked fish hit us in the face like a curtain.” Description does its job while suggesting character: “The sky looked like a load of glowing grayish laundry that someone had washed with a red shirt.” A few critics seemed to have missed some descriptive sex writing. Surely they also missed the point, given Batuman’s control of words, their argument went, ignoring the real Selin. But what a waste and disappointment that would surely have been, I think. As it is, this is much better: “’The point isn’t whether it’s interesting,’ he said after a moment, and rubbed his thumb and index finger together. I felt a jolt of sexual current, and I was appalled…what if my body also responded in some way to money? What if that was the way women were?” Selin’s story is rife with expectation, and isn’t that what good courting is about?
The Idiot employs a kind of punch line sentence and paragraph, incremental and additive, noun and verb usually up front. Selin could be a standup comedian, the unmonumental her subject. “She had a bright red mouth drawn with lipstick, slightly smaller than her actual mouth. Suddenly the image came into my mind of her putting on her lipstick in the morning while Ivan stood in the door and they talked about nothing, like they were doing now – about the trivial and contentious things that somehow made up the whole of life. Everything stopped. Space and time shut down, one dimension at a time, the sky collapsing from a dome to a plane, the plane collapsing into a line, and then there were no surroundings, there was nothing but forward, and then there wasn’t even forward.” One’s life and thoughts may be trivial, but that doesn’t mean one is not important to the whole.
Imagine being still in a world full of fast and furious scholastic and academic and family and political bombast. You spend a year at Harvard, summer visiting Paris then teaching English in Hungary (trying to tryst with a sputtering match), and end swimming in Turkey with the thought that at the end of your year of study, wooing, and worldly experience, you’ve learned nothing. What an idiot.