Elif Batuman – The Idiot


The Idiot is a book you either love or hate, so far haters include:



Baby Boomers

and I can understand why, the reason is that The Idiot will appeal mostly for people born between  1977 and 1980. Elif Batuman bases the novel in that era, cultural references and all. Part of this book is about how the World Wide Web changed our generation and I could relate to that.

In fact Batuman eerily encapsualtes my feelings about the 90’s. I was accepted into University in 1998 and I also discovered Un Chien Andalou and read Kundera, just like the main protagonist in the book. I also danced to Everything but the Girl’s Missing remix¬†and I was getting to grips with using e-mail for the first time. Batuman manages to capture that cultural shift in The Idiot.

The book itself is about Seline, a Turkish American and her first year in college. The courses, professors and, most importantly her first love, a student named Ivan. As the book proceeds Seline’s feelings for Ivan get more complicated until they place her in an awkward situation, especially when the book shifts from the Harvard campus to Ivan’s native Hungary ( I have also visited Budapest so, again I could relate to the descriptions). Like the Russian novel Batuman’s book is named after, Seline finds herself in a situation which reflects a character in a Dostoevsky novel. As I stated besides the relationship tangle the book is also about the cultural changes that happened throughout the 90’s. This is a rich novel.

I also can see why The Idiot got a lot of hate as well. It is not a quick read. Batuman employs the quirky narrator persona and Seline notices EVERYTHING and merges it with her life. The problem is that sometimes it is too random. As one example there’s a bit where she wins a ton of cashews but that isn’t mentioned again. This makes reading The Idiot a bit frustrating. Also I think it is fifty pages too long, the bit where she visits her homeland is rushed and the section in Hungary is too slow. The book moves at an uneven pace and feels a bit too episodic at times. If there was more structure this would have been a fantastic first novel but instead we readers get a good first novel.

So The Idiot is flawed but I am optimistic. Batuman has a distinctive writing style and she knows how to create a character one can relate to so hopefully when The Idiot’s sequel (Seline’s second year at college) is published these bugs will be ironed out.