Elif Batuman’s debut novel, The Idiot, is a novel about language. Or, more specifically, it’s about language’s inability to communicate feelings or ideas accurately. If that sounds boring or unfunny, then I suppose I’m proving Batuman’s point because The Idiot is rich and comedic; it’s also meandering and wonderfully weird but even these adjectives don’t quite do the novel justice.
Like her previous short story collection The Possessed, The Idiot is preoccupied with language, particularly as it’s used and experienced by the novel’s protagonist, Selin. Set in 1995, the book follows 18-year-old Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, through her freshman year at Harvard (a clear stand-in for Batuman, who also went to Harvard in the ‘90s and is the daughter of Turkish immigrants). On arriving, Selin enrolls in classes about the theory of language, an art course suggestively called Constructed Worlds, and first-year Russian. If Selin were an average 18-year-old, then The Idiot would be a standard campus novel, part comedic and part coming-of-age. Instead, Selin observes friends and roommates with disarming intensity, effectively trying to figure out how a person should act or should communicate, with little to no success. Selin is consumed with thoughts about the structure of things, “neither pleasant nor useful,” she says, admitting that she “has no idea what you were supposed to be thinking about.”
Selin’s preoccupation with how a person should speak or behave paralyzes her. In one particularly painful and funny passage, Selin is unable to answer when an acquaintance casually asks “How are you?” because there are no words to authentically describe the answer. She does not understand the concept of small talk; she doesn’t understand that no one actually wants an answer to an otherwise intimate question. Language, and its relationship to how thought works, plague Selin. In her Russian class, she and classmates are asked to translate Nina in Siberia, a passage written specifically for first-year Russian speakers, about a Soviet-era woman looking for her missing lover and falling in love with someone else instead. The text is awkwardly written; its tenses are not-quite-right because the passage employs only those that Selin and her peers have learned in class. “What Slavic 101 couldn’t name didn’t exist,” Batuman writes. The result is a story that’s weird and haunting (hundreds of pages later, I was still thinking about Nina in Siberia) but ultimately unsatisfying. “Of everything I had read that semester, it alone had seemed to speak to me directly, to promise to reveal something about the relationship between the language and the world,” Batuman writes. Ultimately, like everything else, Nina in Siberia “felt like a terrible betrayal.”
But if Nina in Siberia was a narrative disappointment, then it provides Selin an opportunity to reach out to Ivan, the Hungarian student she has a crush on. As standard in beginning language classes, Selin and Ivan have been required to reenact the passage becoming a kind of inside joke that prompts an email exchange. Batuman’s take on email, brand new and exciting in 1995, is particularly witty (in many respects, The Idiot is a novel about email). “Each message contained the one that had come before, and so your own words came back to you—all the words you threw out, they came back,” Batuman writes about the new technology. “It was like the story of your relations with others, the story of the intersection of your life with other lives, was constantly being recorded and updated and you could check it at any time.”
There’s also a wealth of memories in Batuman’s passages on technology which inadvertently make The Idiot a bit of a period piece. Selin “fingers” Ivan to see if he’s checked his email; she considers the line between the “written self” presented via email and the real person (before the casual concept of “IRL” existed, such distinctions were necessary); she wonders if obsessing over one of Ivan’s emails is equivalent to the academic discourse on Balzac. “Wasn’t what I was doing in a way more authentic, and more human?” she asks of the comparison. Batuman’s observations about technological intervention into relationships is wry and observed with an almost disconcerting ambivalence.
The relationship eventually morphs into something real, or at least something more tangible than email and Selin—smart but still an 18-year-old—follows Ivan to Hungary. There, Selin applies her same ambivalent worldview to her relationship and new people. She learns only that language fails, that the workings of language will forever be a mystery and that no one is eighteen forever.
I spoke to Batuman about language, email, and Nina in Siberia. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: I wanted to ask about the role of language in the book, particularly its failure to do what we want—and sometimes what we need—it to do. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about how that concept plays out in The Idiot?
ELIF BATUMAN: I think that Selin is someone who really wants a direct connection between what people say and language in general and truth. She doesn’t quite understand that language is a convention. So when people say things, she takes them at face value and interrogates them in a way that they aren’t meant to be interrogated. There’s a scene where she’s in a job interview and they ask her, “What do we miss out on if we don’t hire you?” And even though this is a question that they ask everyone—the question is a rote job interview question—she’s wondering what the meaning of the question really is.
She puts that pressure on herself, like in the scene where she can’t answer a simple, “How are you doing?” Selin just can’t express how she feels in any words that are coming to her right then. It’s actually an experience that I have quite frequently—not being able to think of a word—I think I’ve gotten better over the years but the book is about a very young person.
Selin is somebody who has a refusal to understand how words work in her life and simultaneously work on her. One of the things that I think is really interesting about her is that she’s really impenetrable in a lot of ways—and I mean that narratively. She has a real resistance to rendering her own narrative...
Like me, she’s a person who thinks of herself as a character in a story and is always comparing that against reality. It often doesn’t fit so she’s always been this person who has been more or less disgusted with reality and with the story she’s actually in.
Your protagonist is drawn from your own life. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about fictionalizing yourself?
I wrote the first draft of this book 15 years ago and then stuck it in a drawer and didn’t look at it. I wrote it was I was 23-years-old and revisited it when I was 38. Already between 18 and 23, there’s a certain gap, a certain fictionalizing that takes place. By the time I came to revisit it at 38, it really feels like a completely different person.
I had been in the middle of writing something that was also kind of autobiographical but it was more recent in 2010. With that, it had been the first fiction that I wrote after only writing non-fiction for many years. I was having trouble separating the narrator from myself and it felt really wonderful to go back to this old manuscript which, by now, felt like fiction. So, I don’t completely remember how much of [The Idiot] is true. I definitely remember when I was writing it, I was trying to make things up and make things not-so-autobiographical. There’s more outrageous and fictional stuff in the original manuscript that I changed.
For example, the school in Hungary was originally a Native American village because I thought I had to protect the identity of the real place somehow. I had all of these ideas and when I went back, it didn’t make sense why there would be a big Native American village in the Hungarian countryside and why they would be bringing American college students there. It’s funny because it was based on something that I read—I had read a [report] about some graduate students who had been given a grant to go to Africa and study kinship structures in a village. But their visas didn’t go through and they ended up recreating the African village in the Hungarian countryside and observing the kinship structures there. I had read about that and tried to incorporate some fictional element of that into the book, it wasn’t very successful.
One of the other things that I really liked about the book was the revisitation of that moment when email was new—the possibilities it presented, especially the ability that it offered to casually present yourself through the written word. In many ways, the first half if The Idiot is a novel about email. There’s a striking separation between being yourself on email and actually being yourself that you play with. Can you talk a bit about that?
That was one of the really intoxicating things about writing this book, especially with college freshmen who are people with a large amount of awkwardness. At the same time that you discover adult life, you discover a way of expressing yourself without having to actually go up to a person. None of the non-linguistic signifiers are there, no one can see your clothes or your handwriting; you can take as long as you want to write [an email] but then it gets there immediately.
There was a real fantasy element about [writing email] that I had forgotten about until I looked back at the manuscript. Now, as an adult and in this current day and age, email is a burden to everyone. It seems like super-young people don’t even use it, it’s an old person thing. I was talking to a friend about it and she said something like, “Remember a time a movie could be titled You’ve Got Mail? That would be a horror movie now.” Email has really become this thing that we carry around with us but there was this time was it was full of possibility and coincided with you leaving home and creating possibilities for yourself.
I’d forgotten about being able to “finger” someone as a kind of primitive digital obsession... which is a terrible word, really...
Oh my god, I’d forgotten about that, too.
The anxiety of being a person on the internet didn’t exist in the early days of email...
Yeah, nothing that you wrote was going to get poached and put on a website where millions of strangers could read it...
It’s hard to remember a moment when email was actually exciting...
And that the internet didn’t just appear the way that it is now. That there was a time when we had email but not smartphones, browsers but not Google....
It’s funny because Selin really believes that she’s more authentic in email; that she’s more of herself in the written word...
Yeah, she does. But the campus therapist that she visits sees it as something that she’s using to hide. So, is it a real thing or is it something you hide behind? I don’t know. In a way, writing is like that, especially for writers. You feel so much more comfortable in a space where you can you write and rewrite and go back. In another way, that’s the hallmark of the artificial construct that you’ve put together. You can do it either way, really.