The Aimless College Romance Set In The Aimless Romance of College
Elif Batuman’s ‘The Idiot’ is a satire of the campus novel
Most people come to college uncertain what to expect. I arrived on campus armed only with information gleaned from seasons 4 and 5 of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and a distinct awareness that over the next four years I was supposed to and indeed expected to “find myself.” Selin Karadağ, the protagonist of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, isn’t sure what to do as a freshman at Harvard in the mid-1990s; she seems genuinely to be there to study, and is diligent if not purposeful about it. She ends up accidentally checking every box of the stereotypical college experience anyway: learning a new language, volunteering, studying abroad, getting drunk for the first time, and falling in love.
The plot is minimal: Selin enrolls in linguistics and Russian classes, and begins talking to Ivan, a Hungarian senior in her Russian class. Their correspondence turns into an epistolary romance that’s painful, occasionally thrilling, and mostly disappointing. At the end of the school year, Selin enrolls in a summer program to teach English in Hungarian villages and has a summer that feels “like reading War and Peace: new characters came up every five minutes, with their unusual names and distinctive locutions, and you had to pay attention to them for a time, even though you might never see them again for the whole rest of the book.”
All of her experiences turn out to be less exciting, less enriching than they are supposed to be, if they don’t backfire completely. The Idiot is a parodic subversion of the college coming-of-age story — the classic narrative of the college experience of an upper-middle-class young person attending a liberal arts or Ivy League school, usually written by an upper-middle-class graduate with some adult perspective. But in this depiction, no hindsight intrudes, and it’s very much not idealized; Selin’s experience comes across as largely cringeworthy, boring, and nonsensical, just like college really was.
Selin slogs her way through classes that attempt to instill a comically exaggerated (but painfully accurate) version of abstruse academic thought:
You wanted to know why Anna [Karenina] had to die, and instead they told you that nineteenth-century Russians were 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.
She sets out on a path to become a linguistics major, thinking that way lies the key to understanding language, but little does she know her Linguistics 101 class will turn out to be the most arbitrary and dogmatic of all. “I don’t know what anything means,” she complains to Ivan in an email. “I have this book that says LANGUAGE on the cover and isn’t teaching me anything.”
Selin hasn’t yet read Barthes, but she seems to intuitively grasp that, as A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments tells us, romance is a lot like close reading. And just as her literature professor ignores the question of what the text means, Ivan’s motives remain frustratingly opaque to Selin. Ivan shows Selin some pictures from his vacation, including pictures of his girlfriend (of course he has a girlfriend). “I looked at the picture carefully, trying to figure out what made her a girlfriend…There was a donkey in the picture. That couldn’t be relevant. Or could it?” Everything has meaning in the text that is the beloved; the lover is inevitably driven by obsession to become a literary critic, analyzing everything the beloved says or does to death.
Ambiguity in love mirrors Selin’s academic exasperation with the idea that things simply don’t mean anything. Our budding linguist says, “Insignificant subtleties are the only difference between something special, and a huge pile of garbage floating through space. I’m not making that up. People discovered it in the nineteenth century.” She’s impatient with the idea that words can mean whatever you want them to mean — an idea that’s been in vogue among academics since the sixties or so, and may or may not have always been a tool of trash men, hell-bent on wasting women’s time since the beginning of human history. No one can catch you being dishonest if you have plausible deniability about what you meant.
The pursuit of insignificant subtleties leads Selin to read a lot into Ivan’s words, but sometimes she would have been better off taking them at face value. While on a “date” that is of course not actually labeled a date, she learns firsthand about Ivan’s slippery rhetoric:
Periodically Ivan would say I should talk more and keep him from bullshitting. It wasn’t clear to me in what sense he meant ‘bullshit.’ I had the uneasy feeling I was being warned about something. I said no, it was interesting. He said he just didn’t want to feel that he was telling me all this bullshit.
Note that she doesn’t say: “He just didn’t want me to feel that he was telling me all this bullshit,” or “He just didn’t want to tell me all this bullshit.” Ivan doesn’t mind acting out a questionable scenario; he just doesn’t want to feel uncomfortable about it.
The questionable scenario, of course, is that classic college freshman-girl milestone: becoming romantically and/or sexually involved with an older guy, particularly a senior. (See “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” season 4, in which freshman Buffy, ever the overachiever, dates a grad student who is also her TA). It’s no coincidence that these types of relationships are so common. It is important to remember — as Ayesha Siddiqi notes in a piece I re-read regularly — “attractiveness is codified along a gendered division of power.” To be a feminine, conventionally attractive woman is to be or appear to be young, innocent, frail, vulnerable. These same hegemonic standards expect men to be tall, strong, socially and physically powerful. Freshman girls arrive on campus as “fresh meat”: cuter, more susceptible to flattery, and more eager to please than their older and wiser female peers. To them, senior boys may seem intriguing and mature, whereas senior girls see these 22-year-old dweebs for who they really are.
Older men are known to use explanation and interpretation to reinforce their structural advantage over younger women. Selin writes to Ivan about Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to the Atom,” an allegorical poem in which an atom is seduced by a general, creating nuclear weapons. Ivan writes back in a pensive tone, twisting the allegory in another direction entirely:
Your atom, I think it will never go back to peace…Once it has been seduced there is no way back, the way is always ahead, and it is so much harder after the passage from innocence. But it does not work to pretend to be innocent anymore. That seduced atom has energies that seduce people, and these rarely get lost.
Not only has Ivan found a way to sexualize an atom, he’s implicitly gendering it, too. What gender do you think an entity that is seduced, thereby losing its innocence, and then becomes responsible for allegedly seducing people — not through its actions, just through its “energy” — could possibly be?
It’s possible that Ivan’s feelings about Selin are a little more complex than the projected narrative about the atom (spoiler: no sexual activity ever occurs between them, though it’s unclear whether Ivan’s as ambivalent about that as Selin is). In one scene, when Selin and Ivan are in a bar and “Linger” by the Cranberries comes, the song feels “ominous” to her because of “the aestheticized girliness, infatuation, and weakness” of the singer’s voice. Selin tells Ivan she doesn’t like the song…and Ivan replies that he does. This would be an innocuous disagreement — the Cranberries are an acquired taste — if it weren’t representative of a lurking power disparity between them.
Selin occasionally withholds or cuts off communication to gain the upper hand, to “win” some contest of power, but that doesn’t change the fact that Ivan has control of the relationship. He dictates its terms. At first he wants to keep their relationship strictly to email, “because spoken language is so demystified, so simplistic, a trap” (no, really), so that’s what they do until he decides they’re going to hang out in person. Their relationship might be based on some mutual feeling, but it’s fundamentally unequal. After Ivan takes Selin to a bar for a beer even though she’s underage and doesn’t feel like it, she recalls,
I felt so unhappy. I just didn’t understand why we couldn’t skip the part where I drank two more pints of beer. ‘Well, I wouldn’t want to push you,’ Ivan said, somehow ironically, as if alluding to the scenario known to both of us in which boys pushed girls, and which was so obviously not what was going on.
Ivan’s motivations don’t seem all that sinister, just inconsiderate and dickish. It’s so textbook it seems inconceivable that Selin doesn’t realize he’s no good. But who hasn’t fallen for the exact equivalent of this person — tall, intelligent, mysterious, sure of himself, and so clearly not respectful of your feelings? After all, the effect of someone’s charm is hard to rationalize away while you’re experiencing it. It is only on the second read, with more distance, that the horrible things Ivan says really stand out. He tells Selin he sympathizes with Raskolnikov’s decision to murder an old lady in Crime and Punishment because it was the only way to study in peace (Selin’s reaction: “I wondered why he had told me something so terrible about himself”).
Selin’s remark mid-book that Ivan “felt to me increasingly like the parody of a love interest” is the most obvious indication yet that the romance she’s embroiled in is a Mad Libs version of a college romance. Ivan also hangs a subtle lantern on the stereotypical scenario he and Selin are acting out: “Apparently now I have to show off to you my record player,” he quips after bringing Selin back to his dorm room. Lakshmi, a cool and beautiful fellow freshman Selin comes to know through the student literary magazine, describes her relationship with a senior boy, Noor, that is clearly just a more glamorous-seeming version of Selin’s frustrating, confusing, unsatisfying, physically unfulfilled relationship with Ivan. Noor is also intriguingly foreign—a literature major from Trinidad who moonlights as a DJ—and together he and Lakshmi do ecstasy and talk about post-colonialism. It all sounds much cooler, but Selin and Lakshmi feel similarly disappointed, vulnerable, embarrassed, and jerked around by their respective non-relationship relationships.
Being involved with terrible men is supposed to be a rite of passage for young women—a sad bit of conventional so-called wisdom that in some ways echoes “boys will be boys.” But in The Idiot, there’s clearly not even much to learn from this aimless romance. At the end of the novel, Selin concludes, “I hadn’t learned anything at all,” specifically within the linguistics department but presumably in a broader sense. But there does seem to be a moral or lesson, or at least a phrase that pops up midway through the novel and becomes a sort of motto: “What is man that thou art mindful of him.” And isn’t that the most important thing young women living in a patriarchal society need to learn, after all? That man doesn’t warrant quite so much effort and attention? “What was man? It occurred to me that I could be less mindful of man, and I seemed to catch a glimpse of freedom,” Selin says to herself in order to remain in emotional control when she gets a phone call from Ivan.
While Selin’s not emotionless, she is logical; that serves as her best defense against the cultural imperative that women subordinate their own desires to those of men. When she hears a song consisting of the line “I miss you, like the deserts miss the rain,” over and over again, Selin wonders: “Why would a desert miss rain? Why wasn’t it okay for a desert to be a desert, why couldn’t anything just be what it was, why did it always have to be missing something?” Why, in other words, does a fish need a bicycle? What is man that thou art mindful of him?
The bright spot throughout all of Selin’s tribulations is the wit and intellect with which she recounts them. She may not feel like she’s learned anything from her freshman year, but the reader knows about her what we all wish we could tell our younger selves: don’t sell yourself short; you’re more wonderful than you realize, and the whole messy question of other people will sort itself out. Maybe.