One of the greatest lessons literature can teach us is that no one should email, ever. From Philip Roth’s The Human Stain to Jonathan Safran Foer’s correspondence with Natalie Portman, readers have had ample opportunity to learn that digital communications often lead to embarrassment and heartbreak.
But they’re so damn appealing to write, at least at first. Email seems to promise a kind of splendid solipsism for two (the ideal is to feel seen, not cc’d), where — unlike with text, a phone call, or social media — there are no limits placed on the time or space needed to express what one truly means. It’s these misapprehensions that cause email to be, in fact, the medium of failure-to-tamp-down: The more we try to contain it, the more it leaks. We take our time, we say too much, we don’t respond, but mostly — most importantly — we think about the recipient when they’re not around.
The education of Selin Karadag — the narrator and protagonist of essayist Elif Batuman’s debut novel, The Idiot — begins with the creation of a Harvard- issued email account, her first. The novel depicts Selin’s freshman year and subsequent summer abroad (teaching English in Hungary, mostly) and is set in the mid-Nineties, the last time it made sense to arrive on campus having read Dostoevsky but never having sent an email, so you can guess which of these captures Selin’s imagination. She quickly strikes up a .edu flirtation with an emotionally unavailable senior in her Russian class, Ivan, whom she eventually follows to Europe as a friend. Their relationship starts as a series of suspenseful language games (“When I saw Ivan’s name in the in-box, I felt a jolt and realized I had been hoping all day that he would write to me. The subject line was Siberia.”) and, even once it migrates off the page, remains sporadic, unrequited, purely intellectual. The two stroll Harvard’s grounds discussing Maupassant, Neruda, and, of course, Dostoevsky, but lovesick Selin reads Ivan’s words closest and makes them the central psychic drama of her own story. “I began to feel that I was living two lives,” she remarks, “one consisting of emails with Ivan, the other consisting of school.”
The latter is Batuman’s strong suit — no one writes funnier or more stylishly about higher education. Nothing written about grad school is as entertaining as her 2010 collection of dispatches from Stanford’s comparative-literature department, The Possessed, and her studied satire of Harvard in The Idiot is nearly its equal. Selin leaves her cushy New Jersey home and supportive, Turkish immigrant parents for an Ivy because she’s a top student who loves words. With little in the way of life experience and a burning desire to be a writer (emphasis on “be”), she spends her first year trying to get into advanced humanities courses. She takes a class called “Constructed Worlds,” for which her final assignment is to construct a world. She finds herself drawn to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that the language one speaks conditions their reality, and we see, through Selin’s eyes, how academia effects a speech all its own. “In Russian class,” Selin observes, “no one cared about truth contradictions. We all said, ‘I have five brothers.’ ”
In many ways, The Idiot even feels like a prequel to The Possessed. Selin’s biographical details, along with several plot points and anecdotes (but not the emails), match information disclosed as nonfiction in Batuman’s first book (judging a leg-beauty pageant in Hungary, absorbing her mother’s disquisition on the men in Anna Karenina). Selin also narrates with the fluency, consistency, wit, and remove of a seasoned essayist. Here, for instance, she recounts her Constructed Worlds professor’s teaching style:
” ‘Artifice,’ Gary blurted, like someone having a seizure. ‘Frames. Who selects what we see?’ He started talking about how museums, which we thought of as the gateway to art, were actually the main agents of hiding art from the public. Every museum owned ten, twenty, a hundred times as many paintings as were ever seen on display. The curators were like the superego, burying 99 percent of thoughts in the dark behind a door marked Private. The curator had the power to make or break an artist — he could keep someone sup-pressed or re-pressed for a lifetime. As he spoke, Gary seemed to grow increasingly angry and agitated.”
If Selin seems less than enthused by this lecture, it’s because, for her, institutions are that “gateway to art.” In class she absorbs her lessons, and elsewhere in the academic stratosphere — in her dorm, at her tutoring gig, during her summer language exchange program — she sees literary allusions everywhere. In other words, she tries to apply those lessons, to live through books and alongside them. When Ivan absentmindedly brushes her ear with the back of his hand, she remembers “from Shakespeare class” that there’s something sexual about ears. Before the winter’s out, her peacoat is stolen from her room, so she buys a new one at Filene’s Basement — of course it reminds her of Gogol’s overcoat.
With The Idiot, Batuman has again demonstrated her talent for extracting literature from the world around her, but she is less successful reverse-engineering the process. Selin, for all her dazzling observations about books, pedagogy, Hungarian villages, and, above all, herself, never really comes alive. There is an insistent innocence about her, a desire to remain composed, character-like, that manifests at times as blankness. Throughout most of the novel, Selin is oddly incurious about where the people around her come from, what they are thinking (unless it’s about her), her own life before Harvard, and sex. Even her best friend, Svetlana, notes her pronounced tendency to narrativize her life, how it earns her a cynical, superior distance from others. The result is a brilliant comic tension, but I kept waiting for it to break, to become messy. “For you, language itself is a self-sufficient system,” Svetlana tells Selin, and she’s right, at least about this chapter of her life. She writes, senses, asks intelligent questions, and, by the time the book closes, is still waiting to be opened.