Selin Karadağ, the 18-year-old narrator of Elif Batuman’s somewhat autobiographical first novel “The Idiot” (Penguin Press, 432 pp., $27), is an enigma even to herself.
She must be bright. After all, she’s gotten into Harvard. She’s also quite well-read for someone her age. But she can scarcely bring herself to form a thought aloud or build on a perception. Her observations are a mix of the bizarre and the mundane (“It really was strange that some people were physically larger than others”). Although she has vague notions of becoming a writer, there are signs that — at least at this early stage — her ambitions may be crumbling on her.
“Something basic about language,” she confesses, “had started to escape me.”
In short, however precocious she may be, she’s also a bit of a dimwit.
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Batuman, a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the essay collection “The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them,” racks up quite a page count as she explores her alter-ego’s hapless blend of insight and cluelessness. Expanding on personal experiences Batuman shared in “The Possessed,” she immerses the reader in the trivia of Selin’s life — her chattering friends, the classes she takes — while skimping on her family background.
We learn that she grew up fairly well-to-do in New Jersey, that her parents are divorced, that she has a 5-year-old half-brother and that her mother is a hematologist. We’re also told that Selin spends most summers with her mom in Turkey, where the family is from.
Beyond mention of those basics, though, her family scarcely figures in the book. Instead, Selin lives strictly on the surface and in the present moment. She’s a blank slate for whom nothing much coalesces: “I don’t understand anything that happens, or how.”
One possible solution to this state of affairs is Ivan Varga, a Hungarian classmate with whom she engages in email exchanges that are as cryptic as they are communicative.
Another key figure is her highhanded Serbian friend Svetlana, whose family has “a lot of money” and who tells the virginal Selin, “I’ve had relationships that were intellectually erotic but nothing ever happened physically. In a lot of ways I feel like a sexual bomb about to explode.”
Spurred by Ivan and Svetlana, Selin goes to Europe after her freshman year, first staying in Paris with Svetlana, then teaching English in Hungarian villages, where she has intermittent contact with Ivan.
Batuman tries to pull off a balancing act in “The Idiot.” Selin, unplugged from her own emotions and uncertain of her own likes and dislikes, is supposed to hold our attention for 400-plus pages as she attempts to address her own formlessness. Batuman allows her some unexpected screwball-comedy moments. (“Who was Rupert Murdoch?” she asks herself. “I knew I knew, but I couldn’t remember. A famous foxhunter?”) But by novel’s end, Selin is still coming up blank. She is, as she puts it, “living pointless, shapeless days that weren’t bringing me closer to anything.”
It may be brave of Batuman to give us a character so stumped by herself and her surroundings. But it’s not entirely satisfying.