Every novel about college thinks it is breaking new ground. While the university novel is common, it can still be quite challenging for both writer and readers. What seems to raise Elif Batuman’s The Idiot above much of the self-satisfied prose of other similar novels is she tasks us with a story beyond its literary subgenre.
Selin is an eighteen year old Harvard freshman from Turkey who develops an email relationship with Ivan, an older Hungarian student. It could be said Batuman has put together a fresh take on the epistolary novel, one that conveys the strange world many of us realized we were a part of birthing. Before the ubiquity of social media, Generation X had to navigate not just the Boomer dominated world but the new, slowly forming realm the Internet spawned. It created a duel consciousness. This coupled with Batuman’s exceptional ability to capture the immigrant experience gives us a delight erudite novel.
What I found most compelling about Batuman’s novel was the authenticity of the tone. Rarely did a scene feel forced or disingenuous. Also, unlike several other literary authors, what we experience reading isn’t some performance or ultra self-conscious seriousness. Batuman avoid pretension and doing so creates a superior coming of age story. It is a novel I have gone back to re-read and ruminate over passages letting it sink deeper into my thought and feeling.
While of its time both in the sense of young adulthood as well as its decade (the mid-1990s), The Idiot wonderfully exceeds the period piece bildungsroman. Batuman has given us a deftly crafted story and a pleasurable read.