I loved Elif Batuman’s “The Idiot,” just like everyone else

One of the books I’m toting around right now is the recently published collected short stories of Susan Sontag, Debriefing. In the collection’s first story, “Pilgrimage,” the 14-year-old narrator (also Susan Sontag) has this to say about reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain:

“For a month the book was where I lived. I read it through almost at a run, my excitement winning out over my wish to go slowly and savor…After finishing the last page, I was so reluctant to be separated from the book that I started back at the beginning and, to hold myself to the pace the book merited, reread it aloud…”<

Sontag’s recollections of reading Mann are the near-perfect summation of my experience with The Idiot. I did not tear through Elif Batuman’s spectacular novel so much as I devoured it. And like Sontag, as I neared the end, I felt a low pang of sadness at the pages diminishing quickly beneath my fingers. I wasn’t ready to abandon Selin, the book’s 19 year old narrator, nor the sprawling, perfectly imagined cast of characters that populate the year of her life she recounts for us. I was entirely consumed by this book, completely beguiled by the unique pitch of Selin’s narrative voice, and by the exasperating clarity of Batuman’s authorial vision.

A blurb on the book’s back cover describes The Idiot as “mundane,” and I truly cannot think of a more accurate statement. To say that nothing much “happens” in the book would be true but misleading. It’s more like what does happen is so heartbreakingly normal, so small, that it barely registers as a happening. Selin, a Harvard freshman, in 1995, of Turkish-American descent, dispatches the tale of her first year in college in a voice so droll and un-impassioned it’s positively flat. An aspiring writer, Selin is observational nearly at the expense of interiority, a pair of eyes and poised pen recording her experiences with an almost journalistic adherence to objectivity. Yet nothing is sacrificed to the stark, spare, even flat quality of the prose: the characters (and there are many, encountered by Selin in Boston, in New York, in Paris, in Turkey and Eastern Europe) are all drawn with precision; the every detail zings. Freighted conversations amount to nothing, such as when Selin discovers she and her doomed love interest, Ivan (who is basically a composite of every withholding, manipulative jerk any of us has ever dated), has booked the same trans-Atlantic flight as she:

I stood beside Ivan. “Hi,” I said.
He didn’t look at me. “Happy birthday,” he said.
“I didn’t recognize you because of your haircut,” I said.
His gloom seemed to intensify. “That why I got the haircut.”
I thought that was funny, but he didn’t laugh.
“I didn’t know you were going to Paris,” I said.
“I didn’t know YOU were going to Paris,” he said.
Then we stood there not saying anything.
“Well, see you later,” I said.
“I guess so,” he said.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” asked Svetlana afterward…

The book is replete with these sort of exchanges, anti-climactic to the point of banality, and they thrilled me.

Yet the book’s simplicity is a front: this is not some frothy tale of collegiate love gone wrong; rather, this is a rigorously intellectual, deeply theoretical book about the possibilities and limits of language. Again and again Selin, whose major is linguistics, brushes against those possibilities and limitations, discovering in most instances the difficulty of communication, the impossibility of true understanding. The many languages that flit through the book–English, Turkish, French, Russian, Spanish, to name a few–some of which Selin is conversant in, others in which she is not, are the stage upon which the author’s theories are presented. The big takeaway seems to be that misunderstanding is so easy–even likely–whether or not two people speak the same language, for language is basically a trick: words taken on their own mean nothing–or, more precisely, they have multiple meanings, and in this way the meanings can be impossible to decipher. This at least seems to be Selin’s lesson, as the novel’s BEAUTIFUL and PERFECT final passage makes clear:

“When I got back to school that fall, I changed my major from linguistics and didn’t take any more classes in philosophy or the psychology of language. They had let me down. I hadn’t learned what I had wanted to about how language worked. I hadn’t learned anything at all.”

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30. Current Events

If this isn’t the country you know, what country did you know? What did it look like to you last week, last month, last year, your whole life?

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I grew up in Northern Indiana in a town of something like 50,000 people. Perhaps five miles south of the house I grew up in was an even tinier community called Osceola. I have no memory of a time before I associated the name of that community with outright racism, and the Ku Klux Klan in particular. There, as late as 2001, when I was still in high school, a local Grand Dragon was making headlines and neighbors uneasy for hosting nightly symposiums where he and “sympathizers” would gather to “shoot guns, play games, and burn crosses.” We’ve always said that Indiana is the south of the north, and it’s true: less than 100 miles east of Chicago, the third largest city in the nation, the KKK flourishes. This is a knowledge I grew up with, one that prevented me from ever separating the images of white men assembling in sheets and hoods I saw in history books or the sound of Billie Holiday’s voice as she sang Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze from my present existence. The knowledge kept me, as a child, from an ability to watch Mississippi Burning or American History X without suffering night terrors and fueled a scholarly interest that bordered on obsession in slavery, the Jim Crow era, and the Civil Rights Movement. How does anyone interpret American history as anything other than an indictment, for the record, against whiteness? It is a fact that as a child I had frequent, Roots-based nightmares about slavery. That I hung a poster of Martin Luther King, Jr., over my bed, a totem to ward off white devils.

In junior high a boy in my class told me he would never have sex with a black girl or even want to see one naked. This was the same year that Shawn Berry, Lawrence Brewer, and John King kidnapped James Byrd, Jr., and beat him before chaining him to the back of their pick-up truck and dragging him for two miles to his death.

The notion that there could ever be “two sides” to a story involving white supremacist IS a racist notion. The President has basically said, “Whoa, let’s slow down, maybe they have a point.”

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Yet David Benioff and D.B. Weiss still want to make a prestige drama about the drama unfolding in our streets. I’m sorry, I mean they want to make a prestige drama that speculates, What if the slavery were still a thing?

At work not long ago I said that black men were out here getting shot simply for driving cars and a white girl who was mad about her diet said, “Oh, only for driving cars?” In a similar vein, a few days later, a different white girl put her forearm against mine and declared herself darker than me. Virtually every day someone accuses me of being sassy.

Over the weekend, a group of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and Confederate traitors to the Union — not all of them bad people, according to the President — gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest, apparently, that Jews and black people and people of color exist. One of them ran down a crowd of counter-protesters with his car, killing Heather Heyer. This week on Facebook there are actual people defending all this as a matter of free speech.

Sometimes I think there is no such thing as history, only current events.