Business Times of Edmond, Oklahoma July 2018 - Page 29

BOOK REVIEW BY CAMERON BRAKE | BEST OF BOOKS “The Idiot” by Elif Batuman c.2018, Penguin Books 432 pages In Review: The Idiot (Not the Russian One) I must be honest. I still do not really know what to make of Elif Batuman’s debut novel, “The Idiot.” I know that it is unlike any other novel I have ever read. I know that it probably makes references to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic of the same name, but having not yet read that Russian great, the references went right over my head. Worry not, I can say with certainty that reading Dostoevsky’s “Idiot” is not a pre- requisite to enjoying Batuman’s “Idiot.” Enjoying and understanding, however, are very different things. I enjoyed Batuman’s first work. I cannot say that I understood it. “The Idiot” is not an easy book to talk about. This is because Batuman seems to go out of her way to lack a clear point. That is not to say that Batuman failed to craft a good novel. This pointlessness is intentional. Let’s start with the plot. It is 1995 and Selin, a precocious daughter of Turkish immigrants, begins her studies at Harvard. She samples a wide, seemingly unrelated range of courses. Her primary interest is language. Some of her first semester courses include Russian, The Philosophy of Language, and something called “Constructed Worlds.” Selin spends her days getting acquainted with her roommates, whom she does not understand. She meets another student, Ivan, who she begins communicating with exclusively via e-mail. I enjoyed the e-mail bits of the book, because it felt, amazingly, like historical fiction. The characters’ thoughts and predictions about how the internet will affect people are at times prophetic, but typically woefully naïve. After the first hundred pages I found myself simultaneously enthralled and painfully bored. If this seems impossible, trust me, I was confused too. On the one hand, I found myself begging Selin to sever her growing relationship with Ivan. To everyone but Selin it is obvious that Ivan is, at best, young and selfish, at worst, actively abusive. He frequently takes advantage of the reality that Selin is very much attracted to him but lacks the ability to properly explain her feelings. Ivan is dating another student. Selin knows this. Ivan’s girlfriend also knows about his relationship with Selin. She is not thrilled about it. Selin knows she is supposed to do something, but she cannot figure out what it is. In a very real sense, Ivan has her trapped. That’s the enthralling part. Rooting for a good outcome for Selin ends up carrying your interest throughout the entire novel. Nothing else, plot-wise, is at all compelling. It is in fact intentionally unexciting. It is possible this is Batuman’s intention. She seems very interested in the mundane.   Batuman makes up for the lack of an over-engaging plot with some of the driest humor I’ve ever read. You will laugh frequently, but it is hard to say exactly why you’re laughing. Selin’s observations about the world and the people she encounters are not meant in jest, but they end up being the most memorable, funny parts of the book. The Idiot might lack a central point, but you will keep on reading in anticipation of these desert-dry quips.   If there is a problem with this book it is this: I am not sure who would get the most from it. I enjoyed it, but I know there is more to be had that I just plain missed or failed to connect with. I worry that my preference for novels with big, grand calls to action might have prevented me from fully appreciating “The Idiot.” I think the best possible way to read this book is as a member of a book club. Frequently I found myself thinking that this would be a better experience if I was reading it alongside someone else and could bounce ideas and questions off them. I may not have fully grasped it, but I know enough to say that Batuman’s first novel is worth your attention, and she is certainly a strong new voice in literary fiction. Her talent is obvious, even if her point is not. REVIEWER CAMERON BRAKE works at Best of Books, Edmond’s independently owned bookstore at 1313 E. Danforth in the Kickingbird Square Shopping Center.  July 2018 | The Business Times 29