Holden, Hamlet, and now Selin—THE IDIOT, by Elif Batuman

It’s been a long time since I read THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, and quite a few years since I saw a performance of HAMLET, but as I entered the world of novelist Elif Batuman’s THE IDIOT, I thought frequently of the protagonists of both those classic works.*

What I remember about THE CATCHER IN THE RYE is how very young the young main character, Holden Caulfield, is and how agonizingly he wanders through the story, mostly alone, searching for meaning in life. In HAMLET, the Prince of Denmark is overwhelmed by the events surrounding him, and though he wants to, he cannot seem to act.

Selin Karadağ, the narrator of THE IDIOT (not the same novel as THE IDIOT by Fyodor Dostoyevsky), is also young. The daughter of well-educated, divorced Turkish immigrants, she is a freshman at Harvard University in 1995, when (as the back cover copy notes) email is new. As intelligent as Selin obviously is, she is nevertheless befuddled by much of what she encounters in her first year of college life. She struggles mightily to make sense of roommates, course instructors, Conversational Russian, fellow students, and most of all her attraction to Ivan, a Hungarian math major who is a graduating senior. One could argue that Selin, having been born and raised in New Jersey and done what it takes to get into Harvard, would be more hip and less self-conscious, but all I had to do was recall my own first year in college (1967, University of Houston) to instead think, oh, yeah, I felt that way myself.

I purchased THE IDIOT because it was described as hilarious by a member of my cohort at StoryStudio Chicago during a discussion about how hard it is to make humor work in a novel. Eager to see if I would also find THE IDIOT hilarious, I opened it on my train ride back to Iowa from Chicago earlier this month. The California Zephyr usually has a nut case or two onboard, and as I chortled my way across the prairie, sometimes laughing out loud, I glanced around my seat in the observation car to see if I was attracting attention.

Ultimately, not a lot happens in THE IDIOT, but Selin’s mordantly witty** observations as she wanders haplessly around the Harvard campus and Cambridge, visits Paris en route to Hungary for the summer, uses Beatles songs to teach English to children in a small Hungarian village, tries to understand her love or non-love for Ivan, and is painfully unable to express her feelings about almost everything, kept me entertained all the way to the end of the story, where, unsurprisingly, nothing much was resolved.

I found THE IDIOT a good read, Batuman an extremely talented writer.

*Intentionally, I didn’t consult The Oracle (google) for descriptions of THE CATCHER IN THE RYE or HAMLET to refresh my memory or find out whether any legit reviewers were reminded of their protagonists when writing my own review.

**I wish I could claim “mordant wit” as my own choice of words, but these two are also in the back cover copy. I could think of no better way to describe Batuman’s writing.


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