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Solve the girl-meets-boy equation by looking very closely: Rosa Lyster reviews Elif Batuman’s The Idiot

Published in the Sunday Times

The Idiot
****
Elif Batuman, Jonathan Cape, R290

It’s difficult to classify The Idiot. Elif Batuman’s novel begins on the narrator’s first day of college. Selin, a tall and clever Turkish-American girl, is going to Harvard. She is going to do all the things expected of a protagonist in a coming-of-age novel: she is going to make some friends, take some classes, and fall in love for the first time with an unsuitable mathematician called Ivan. She is going to Experience Life. Easy.

Not at all easy, though. The Idiot is about experience, but it’s also about the way we describe and understand experiences, and how we summarise the incoherencies and absurdities of everyday life and turn them into a story that makes sense.

Early on in the novel, Selin describes her approach to literature (and to life: Selin’s world is made of words). Selin believes that “every story has a central meaning. You could get that meaning, or you could miss it completely.” How does she understand the meaning of the conversations she has with the unsuitable mathematician, where all they ever do is “mishear each other and say ‘What?’ all the time”, and yet she comes away from these interactions feeling so besotted and preoccupied she can hardly see straight? What is she supposed to do, and what is she meant to think, and how is she meant to behave all the time, and who is going to tell her? Who is going to decode the e-mails between her and the unsuitable mathematician, or explain what his sigh means when she produces a pack of alcohol swabs from her bag? Well?

This is all much funnier and much less tortured than it sounds. Batuman, a staff writer for the New Yorker, has a high sense of the absurd and a gift for observation that borders on the creepy. She see things that other people don’t see, and she makes her readers see them too. – Rosa Lyster, @rosalyster

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