Elif Batuman’s big spring novel, The Idiot, tells the story of Selin, a Harvard freshman in the 1990s whose delightful inner observations are paired with a noticeable lack of external drama. For 400-plus pages, her great first love remains unrequited, her sexuality barely explored. In the bluntest terms, The Idiot is an epic chronicle of one young woman’s inability to get herself out of the friendzone.
This makes Batuman’s novel a rarity in today’s pop culture, where the most common depictions of young female sexuality show women as either objects of aggressive male lust or, conversely, uninhibited hookup mavens. The author’s choice to keep her heroine both romantically rejected and personally passive feels daring, frustrating—and to my surprise, kind of refreshing. In capable hands, frustration and inaction can be fertile ground for exploring the interior life of a young woman, and Batuman’s narrative approach accurately reflects the way adolescence often involves being stuck deep inside our own heads, rather than having the thrilling, bruising experiences the world expects us to.
The novel’s “plot” goes like this: wryly observant, unconventional Selin has a deep, abiding crush on Ivan, her email pen pal and partner in philosophical and linguistic ruminations. He seems not uninterested, either: they meet in class, they write long emails soliloquizing about their own concerns, and they walk around Cambridge, and walk, and talk. He introduces her to beer, which she doesn’t like at all. Though she grows to love him deeply, he never seduces her—not at Harvard and not in his native Hungary, where she spends the summer at his suggestion. He has another girlfriend, mostly offstage, the whole time.
Is Ivan toying with Selin, or does he have feelings that he won’t act on? We never truly know, and neither does she. The reader is reminded, excruciatingly, that not every intense connection in a young person’s life explodes into sex, blossoms into love, or ends in disaster after one of those two outcomes. Sometimes our formative relationships remain cerebral, platonic, and even Curb Your Enthusiasm-level awkward—even when we want them to be otherwise. (In her nonfiction writing, too, Batuman has shown herself to be a skilled connoisseur of awkwardness.)
But just because there’s no sex in this relationship doesn’t mean there isn’t a charge, what Ivan calls a “power thing,” when he and Selin debrief their friendship towards the novel’s end. One of many brutally realistic aspects of The Idiot is its portrayal of how smart young men keep smart young women around them, close but at arm’s length. It makes the men feel enlightened, maybe—or maybe they are confused about what they want. Ivan certainly seems to leave the door open for Selin to flirt, but she’s not able to step in with confidence, and he won’t pull her along. Instead, she fixates on her empty inbox and her not-ringing dorm phone, brooding, leaving us with her mordant observations.
Reading The Idiot, I was struck by how well Batuman captures the experience of a late-blooming, neurotic bookworm who is not about to undergo a She’s All That-style makeover anytime soon. Selin’s stubborn repression resonates with a side of my younger self (I was a bookish, bewildered freshman once) that I don’t often see reflected in pop culture. In fact, I can only think of two well-known female protagonists who compare to her in this sense: Middlemarch’s Dorothea Brooke, who gives up the pleasure of riding horses so she can marry a crusty, controlling old scholar, and Mad Men Season One’s Peggy Olson, who’s sharp enough to figure out the sexist advertising business but totally unaware that she’s pregnant.
Yet both of these women eventually get some redemption. Peggy, of course, spends the rest of the series working her way toward more romantic agency, and a widowed Dorothea finds happiness with her husband’s attractive young cousin as Middlemarch comes to a close. Even girl-nerd icon Hermione Granger attracts male interest in between acing tests and saving the world. Still unkissed and unloved at novel’s end, Selin stands seemingly alone.
One of the consequences of living in patriarchy is that we must spill endless ink documenting the very real experience of unwanted sexual aggression and harassment, inadvertently contributing to a narrative in which women are always desired, and men (predatory and otherwise) are always looking directly at us. Retrograde fantasies like Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight sell that idea back to us as something we should want. To counterbalance this, feminists often celebrate stories about women who transgress gender norms. Other major novels and memoirs I’ve read (and loved!) this spring center on women who act out: adulterers, addicts, seducers of married men, warriors and avengers.
This imaginative work is crucial, but it tells an incomplete story, skipping over some of the less overt ways that power and gender interact in modern relationships. Take the debate over the so-called friendzone—a term that’s been leveraged by aggrieved men who are shocked that the sex they feel entitled to is not forthcoming. On the internet, male legions moan about this “zone” in woefully heterosexist terms, and feminists dutifully retort that it’s bullshit. The truth is that romantic distancing and miscommunication happen in more contexts than this debate often acknowledges. Human beings keep each other dangling, send ambiguous texts, and embark on long, fraught, unconsummated relationships like Selin and Ivan’s. Carrying an ever-flickering torch is one of many risks that comes with having a heart, and it knows no gender.
If Selin were an entitled young man obsessed with an unavailable older woman, he might end up on an MRA message board complaining about the friendzone. Instead, she’s a thoughtful woman who absorbs the pain of being consigned to a (mostly) sexless corner of Ivan’s mind, thinks carefully about what this means, and even gets a kind of perverse pleasure from that contemplation. Throughout the novel, that stoicism on Selin’s part is a confounding counterpoint to Ivan’s lack of interest in deflowering her. As a reader, you keep waiting for her to sleep with his best friend, kiss him drunkenly, trash his dorm room, castrate him, or do something. None of this happens. “I didn’t identify with the girls in the stories Ivan told,” Selin says. “Their sassiness, their spirit, felt wholly alien to me.” The romantic stasis is echoed by other strands of Selin’s life, her dry puzzlement at freshman-year mores like dance parties and roommate rap sessions. College isn’t always life-changing, classes don’t always open our minds, and summers of travel aren’t always sensually overwhelming.
The Idiot, in its refusal to give us a conventional, combustible plot, throws us back to older novelistic traditions. Speaking with Guernica’s Lauren LeBlanc, Batuman cited the influence of 19th-century greats from Jane Austen to Henry James: “I do like the idea of the novel of repressed college students being a contemporary novel of courtship,” she said. “I mean, why don’t Ivan and Selin have sex? Nobody’s going to go to prison or wear a scarlet letter, neither of them believes in hell, there isn’t a social stigma like there used to be….”
Part of the reason they don’t “do it” is because Selin is disconnected from her body—again, refreshingly, not due to any past trauma, but simply because her mind is on overdrive. One of the novel’s most hilarious and charged scenes occurs after a trip to Walden Pond with Ivan. Selin is so embarrassed by the thought of being naked near him that she puts her clothes on over a wet bathing suit—even and especially when Ivan offers to shield her with a towel so she can change. Her emotional discomfort, the feeling of wet nylon on cold skin—it’s awful, small, and so real. Naive and precocious simultaneously, Selin is uncomfortable in a way many of us might remember from our first months out of the parental orbit: she constantly stays up all night, skipping meals or eating lousy food for dinner. She takes long, harsh runs. Meanwhile, she tries to puzzle out everything she hears in class, fiercely, from art to language to literature, hoping her studies will give her the answers that she can’t quite grasp in more worldly realms.
Batuman has written elsewhere about the power and limitations of religious modesty. What Selin deploys here is sort of a secular modesty, a fierce self-protectiveness that’s both impressive and self-sabotaging. This is evident in the moment she says goodbye to Ivan, and out of sheer force of will, turns away first, “to be brave.” Showing how much she is hurting would be making herself vulnerable, and she won’t do it. It’s clear by this point that her destiny is to be a writer, and by never making a real move on Ivan, even if she is dying inside, she ensures that the narrative of their relationship hasn’t left her purview. And yet the loss of potential is acute (and very Jamesian). We can’t help but wonder what would have happened if she’d spoken her truth, however clumsily it came out.
This farewell scene coincides with a period of Selin coming alive physically, very slowly, as the novel draws to a close. She (finally!) masturbates in the shower thinking of Ivan, she learns to enjoy The Beatles for the very first time, she has intense dreams, and in the final pages, she actually feels attracted to a non-Ivan stranger she meets while swimming off the coast of Turkey. These are almost miniscule changes, but since we’ve been in her brain for 400 pages, we notice them immediately. Selin may not be initiated into adulthood the way we expect, or the way many other storytellers would have her do, but she is growing up. Batuman reminds us that the coming-of-age process can happen by centimeters, and be still be full of emotional dynamics well-worth exploring in fiction.
Sarah M. Seltzer is a writer of fiction, journalism and criticism in New York City and the editor of Kveller.com, a site for moms.