Elif Batuman’s Bold and Defiantly Imperfect novel

Elif Batuman’s Bold and Defiantly Imperfect novel

The Baggy Monster

Elif Batuman’s debut novel reminds us of the power of defiantly imperfect fiction.


In 2006, Elif Batuman published a polemic called “Short Story & Novel” as part of a symposium in the little magazine n+1. The piece was an acidly witty attack on the state of American literature, which Batuman viewed as fatally damaged by, among other things, the influence of creative-writing workshops. American fiction writers, she argued, were afflicted by a puritanical sense of guilt about producing literature, a sense of cultural superfluousness that could only be appeased by mortifying oneself and one’s work through the adoption of a painstaking and disciplined artisanal approach. “Guilt leads to the idea that all writing is self-indulgence,” Batuman wrote. “Writers, feeling guilty for not doing real work, that mysterious activity—where is it? On Wall Street, at Sloan Kettering, in Sudan?—turn in shame to the notion of writing as ‘craft.’” Rather than turning out the long, unapologetically discursive novels of Batuman’s beloved 19th-century Russians, or even the formally and psychologically ambitious experiments of the modernists, contemporary fiction writers now gravitate to the short story and produce “constipated ‘vignettes’—as if to say: ‘Well, yes, it’s bad, but at least there isn’t too much of it.’”

Batuman, at the time she published her n+1 essay, was a graduate student at Stanford studying comparative literature, and she was clearly nostalgic for an age when “large, loose, baggy monsters,” to borrow Henry James’s famous description of the 19th-century novel, roamed the earth. Novels, she argued, are messy and excessive by nature, and this is precisely what makes them such exquisite instruments for the recording of everyday life. American writers, with their workshop-mandated obsession with precision, concision, and perfection, had lost touch with the form’s potential to capture the vagaries of human experience. “A short story says, ‘I looked for x, and didn’t find it,’ or ‘I was not looking anymore, and then I found x,’” Batuman explained. “A novel says, ‘I looked for x, and found a, b, c, g, q, r, and w.’” It was part of the novel’s genius that it made room for the extraneous and the unplanned: “The novel consists of all the irrelevant garbage, the effort to redeem that garbage, to integrate it into Life Itself, to redraw the boundaries of Life Itself.” A certain formlessness, in Batuman’s estimation, is intrinsic to the form: That is how it keeps pace with the chaos of life.

A little over a decade after her brief on behalf of the novel, Batuman has at last published one of her own. The Idiot, like her 2010 essay collection The Possessed, borrows its title from Dostoyevsky, signaling that she hasn’t abandoned her allegiance to the 19th-century tradition. Its protagonist, Selin Karadag, is a Turkish-American woman like Batuman, and The Idiot chronicles her freshman year at Harvard, where Batuman also went, in the mid-1990s.

It’s not surprising that Batuman—who has made her name as a memoirist and staff writer for The New Yorker—has written an autobiographical novel; another of her claims, back in 2006, was that “American novelists are ashamed to find their own lives interesting.” Nor is it surprising to find her displaying a sly sense of humor about academia. The Possessed is one of the best books ever written about being a PhD student: Part memoir, part literary criticism, and part travelogue, it surveys the arcane culture of graduate literary study with a Nabokovian mix of affection, contempt, and respect. Most of all, it thrums with a sense of rerouted passion, of devoting your time and energy to something slightly adjacent to what you’re supposed to be doing with your life.

In its first half, at least, The Idiot promises to do something similar for the undergraduate experience. Batuman evokes the collegiate milieu of 1995 with a remarkable fidelity: the obligatory Albert Einstein posters on the dorm-room walls; the roommate “chanting monotonously along with Blues Traveler on her Discman”; the cafeteria with its “air heavy with institutionalized chowder”; the stressed-out student “staring at a stack of flash cards with incredible ferocity, as if she were going to eat them.”

However such detailed realism was achieved—mining old diaries? wolfing down packs of madeleines from Harvard vending machines?—the effectiveness of the evocation is undeniable: We have arrived back in college in the mid-1990s. But The Idiot is less concerned with the recent past than it is with a more traditional purview of the 19th- and early-20th-century novel: It is a study of love and friendship. Batuman is particularly good at capturing how youthful relationships can veer quickly from intense intimacy to nonchalance. “That was the best thing about college: it was so easy to leave,” Selin thinks after extricating herself from an argument with her roommates. “You could be in the place where you lived, having an argument that you had basically started, and then you could just say, ‘See you later,’ and go somewhere else.”

Such flexibility suits Selin, who wants, in principle, to have intense, meaningful experiences, but who is fairly ambivalent about most of the experiences she does have. Perhaps this is because she wants to be a writer, a desire she regards less as a positive ambition or marker of identity than as a mildly worrying preexisting condition. “Even though I had a deep conviction that I was good at writing,” Selin reflects, “and that in some way I already was a writer, this conviction was completely independent of my having ever written anything, or being able to imagine ever writing anything, that I thought anyone would like to read.”

Selin’s sense of high artistic vocation is bound up with a broader aspiration: “to live a life unmarred by laziness, cowardice, and conformity.” Because her life will one day be fodder for literature, she hopes, Selin holds herself to almost unattainable standards, silently criticizing most of what she and others say and do. Her friend Svetlana points out the potentially paralyzing effects of this aesthetic sensibility: “I get that you despise convention, but you shouldn’t let it get to the point that you’re incapable of saying, ‘Fine, thanks,’ just because it isn’t an original, brilliant utterance.”

Selin is not quite paralyzed, and she is manifestly not an idiot; she is, on the contrary, witty, inventive, widely read, and gifted with languages. But she remains a bit of a naïf about certain things, and much of the comedy of the novel comes from her frank confessions of ignorance: “I didn’t know anything about Fellini; my mental image was of a human-sized cat”; “Who was Rupert Murdoch?… A famous foxhunter?” Surrounded on all sides by the pretentious and the learned, Selin views herself as an “eternal pauper in the great marketplace of ideas and of the world,” constantly scrounging for scraps of knowledge to help her orient herself.

Novels, naturally, become a critical resource in this effort, but the literature classes she takes dissatisfy her: “Everything the professors said seemed to be somehow beside the point. You wanted to know why Anna had to die, and instead they told you that nineteenth-century Russian landowners felt conflicted about whether they were really a part of Europe. The implication was that it was somehow naïve to want to talk about anything interesting, or to think that you would ever know anything important.” What Selin wants from her education is not information but understanding: “I wasn’t interested in society, or in ancient people’s money troubles. I wanted to know what books really meant.”

Of course, this desire is naive—idiotic, even. Books don’t mean one thing; they mean many things, and different things to different people at different times. Moreover, novels, as Batuman argued in her n+1 essay, are also often full of things that mean nothing: “irrelevant garbage” that escapes the adolescent impulse to imbue everything with significance. Selin’s desire to “know what books really meant” is related to her desire to impose meaning on her own life; the miscellaneous excess all around her pains her. It’s as if she wants to be living in a perfectly crafted short story, but is trapped instead in an aimless, formless novel.

The motor of The Idiot’s plot, insofar as it has one, is Selin’s budding infatuation with Ivan Varga, a senior she encounters in her Russian-language class. Ivan is a Hungarian math major, but, like Selin, he is tall, bookish, and prone to flights of philosophical and linguistic abstraction. She finds herself sexually attracted to him, but she is still shy about sex; her moments of lust are always rendered obliquely, as when she mentions the “amazing sight [of] someone you’re infatuated with trying to fish something out of a jeans pocket.”

Over the course of the novel, Selin and Ivan never so much as kiss. Much of their affair is conducted via e-mail, a medium that serves as a structuring motif. The Idiot begins with Selin receiving her first e-mail account through the university:

Insofar as I’d had any idea about it at all, I had imagined that email would resemble faxing, and would involve a printer. But there was no printer. There was another world. You could access it from certain computers, which were scattered throughout the ordinary landscape, and looked no different from regular computers. Always there, unchanged, in a configuration nobody else could see, was a glowing list of messages from all the people you knew, and from people you didn’t know, all in the same letters, like the universal handwriting of thought or of the world…. It was like the story of your relations with others, the story of the intersection of your life with other lives, was constantly being recorded and updated, and you could check it at any time.

Like an 18th-century epistolary novelist, Batuman embeds large chunks of Selin’s e-mail correspondence with Ivan into her text. Their topics include the Ottoman invasion of Hungary, the post-Soviet fate of statues of Lenin, the possibility of free will, and the poetry of Pablo Neruda. Much of this, for the reader, is appropriately impenetrable, as private correspondences so often are. But Ivan’s e-mails to Selin provide her with a text to interpret, allowing her to apply the hermeneutic skills she is honing in her literature and philosophy classes. “I read Ivan’s messages over and over, thinking about what they meant,” she tells us. “I felt ashamed, but why? Why was it more honorable to reread and interpret a novel like Lost Illusions than to reread and interpret some email from Ivan?”

Selin’s crush on Ivan is only inconsistently requited. He seems drawn to her and pleased to have her attention, but he already has a girlfriend and often disappears for long stretches of time. Selin is conscious, too, of the crush’s insignificance; even as her romantic yearnings come to dominate her consciousness more and more, she is incapable of taking them seriously. “He felt to me increasingly like the parody of a love interest,” she reflects during one of their rare moments of physical proximity. Later, she upbraids herself for caring so much about him, thinking of the inscription over the door of the campus philosophy building: What Is Man That Thou Art So Mindful of Him. “It was a good question. What was man?” Selin wonders at one point. “It occurred to me that I could be less mindful of man, and I seemed to catch a glimpse of freedom.”

Nevertheless, she decides to spend the summer teaching English in a Hungarian village in order to remain close to Ivan. This decision sets in motion the events of the novel’s desultory second half, which shares a gently baffled tone with “Summer in Samarkand,” Batuman’s memoir of her time in Uzbekistan, which appears in The Possessed. (It also repeats a few comic incidents, including Selin’s reluctant judging of a boys’ leg contest, first narrated in that book’s preface.) This is Batuman in her element—writing about Batuman (sorry, Selin) out of her element—but though the setting and subject matter play to her strengths as a humorist, there is a noticeable slackening of narrative focus. A sense of futility starts to take over the novel, which gradually becomes a kind of depressive picaresque. Selin herself comes to feel that the trip to Hungary was a mistake, a waste of precious time. She thinks of a Harvard classmate who is spending her summer doing an internship for New York magazine, “and for a moment now I reflected on the fact that, although [she] and I both wanted to be writers, she was going about it by interning at a magazine, whereas I was sitting at this table in a Hungarian village trying to formulate the phrase ‘musically talented’ in Russian, so I could say something encouraging by proxy to an off-putting child whose father had just punched him in the stomach. I couldn’t help thinking that [her] approach seemed more direct.”

Selin’s disappointment with her Hungarian excursion may be shared by some of The Idiot’s readers. We are made to care about the course of her sentimental education and her relationship with Ivan, and we may be dismayed—or even irritated—to discover that neither is really advanced by her adventures in Hungary. At times, one gets the sense that Batuman may have felt the same way. The novel’s final sentence is “I hadn’t learned anything at all”—a funny way to end a bildungsroman.

But if The Idiot is a defiantly imperfect novel, its imperfection feels both true to Selin’s teenage confusion and true to Batuman’s long-standing critique of fictional “craft.” (Another salvo in this war was her stinging 2010 review of The Program Era, the scholar Mark McGurl’s literary history of creative-writing culture.) There is certainly a great deal of writerly skill on display in The Idiot—as a maker of sentences and scenes, Batuman is masterful—but she is committed to retaining a certain randomness that evokes the mess of real life.

Batuman is not alone in this approach; indeed, literary trends have lately been moving in her direction. Since “Short Story & Novel” was published in 2006, we have seen the rise of “autofiction”—which the critic Christian Lorentzen recently identified as one of the four most prominent novelistic genres of the Obama era—by writers like Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, Teju Cole, and Karl Ove Knausgaard. These novels have helped to clear the space for the “aristocratic, decadent, egotistical, self-indulgent” aspects of literature that Batuman holds dear, and they represent a partial rejection of the puritan aesthetics of craft that she denounced in the American fiction of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. “Dear American writers, break out of the jail!” Batuman exhorted her contemporaries a decade ago. “Write long novels, pointless novels. Do not be ashamed to grieve about personal things. Dear young writers, write with dignity, not in guilt. How you write is how you will be read.”

The Idiot may be an imperfect work of literature—a long, personal, and, in some sense, pointless novel—but it is deliberately, conspicuously so. Though it ends on a note of failure and confusion, it feels, despite or perhaps even because of its flaws, like a victory: the triumph of an aesthetic sensibility whose time has come, or come again.

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