Renée Branum on Elif Batuman’s The Idiot
On my 30th birthday, while visiting my friend Sara in New Orleans, the city flooded. I don’t even remember what our destination was—only that we couldn’t reach it because the street was full of water. This trembling lake that only the bravest cars could move through: high-riding Land Rovers and all-terrain trucks, throwing up a dirty brown mist as they plowed through the water. Some of them stalled, women wading out from their stranded vehicles with their hands covering their faces. Two boys paddled a canoe down the middle of the street, offering rides, delivering news of road conditions two blocks away.
“Not good,” they called. “You going Uptown?”
We pulled our car up onto the grassy neutral ground and waited at the water’s edge, the brown floodwater kissing the tread of the front tires. Sara was behind the wheel, her boyfriend in the passenger seat, and I sat in the backseat—lighting a cigarette, smoking it, pausing, lighting another.
“Happy Birthday,” Sara said, meeting my eyes in the rearview mirror. We cracked up.
There’s something about having your birthday marked this way, all scratched across with disaster, that’s almost satisfying, like carving your initials into a tree-trunk. I kept thinking of myself in the future remembering this, silver-haired and telling people, “The day I turned thirty, the floodwater was high enough that people were paddling canoes down the street.” It seemed almost like a good omen: things fall apart, your plans overturn, and then, your life resumes and things pull together again, and the ordered days, the measure of all the tidy good times that come after will remind you fondly of that one day of chaos, the bridge between your 20s and your 30s, that last little span of childhood.
Reading The Idiot gave me a flickering of the lost feeling you get standing in the space between two different versions of yourself.
It was in the midst of this, in this state of mind, that I began reading The Idiot by Elif Batuman, a birthday present I received from Sara. I think maybe receiving The Idiot was its own sort of good luck for me, the right book to read upon having just turned thirty, flood-soaked sandals still drying out by the front door. Reading The Idiot gave me a flickering of the lost feeling you get standing in the space between two different versions of yourself. It is a book that understands the meeting points of chaos and control. It knows that fate can sometimes feel impossibly real, weirdly true, seeming to prove itself in solitary moments of slippage and drift. Reading it reminded me of the self I’d been when I was the same age as the book’s narrator, believing then in the tangibility of everything I encountered passing through me, leaving its mark.
When the book opens, Selin, The Idiot’s narrator, begins her freshman year at Harvard in 1995. It is clear that she recognizes an underlying, muted magic in things; her description of the miraculous novelty of e-mail early in the book already reveals to her readers that Selin is rare and vulnerable and sharp and awake. She describes her first impressions of the phenomenon this way:
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 . . . And each message contained the one that had come before, so your own words came back to you – all the words you threw out, they came back. 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.
This passage does many things. It illuminates a primary and basic motive for why we read in the first place, for reading the book in our hands, for reading the notebooks we used to keep as younger selves, for reading e-mails from people we know and people we don’t know. These readings, all of them, span distances. They tell “the story of your relations with others.” They reveal “the intersection of your life with other lives.” They preserve and connect us back to separate identities: those of others, of the selves we once were, the selves we could be, the self of the ever-shifting now. In the novel, Selin begins to exchange e-mails with a Hungarian student, Ivan, and these e-mails expose Selin, again and again, to her own boundaries and vulnerabilities. It is the magic space of e-mail that provides access to these self-encounters; the accrual of intimacy, of time, of words, constructs a bridge between Selin and Ivan, between Selin as she is at the novel’s beginning and at its end, between the spaces within herself she wasn’t yet aware of.
Selin’s description of e-mail is beautiful, in part, because of how rich it is in duality. It recognizes that this thing (e-mail) that is now old news, an obvious commonplace, was once new, and the language captures what that newness looked and felt like. It seems to point toward an older, mature self (the author) inhabiting a younger, immature one (Selin), with incredible tenderness, even if the title might make us think that Selin’s naiveté and inexperience will reveal, at times, her foolishness.
This tension, between the past and future selves that the narrator contains, between a retrospective compassion and condemnation for a younger self, is, in part, what makes this a brilliant book. It illustrates vividly how complicated the relationship with one’s former self inevitably is, and lets that dynamic flood the page with energy, with intelligence, with doubt, with messiness and discovery. Just as Proust affirms in In Search of Lost Time, from the passage that Batuman chose as an epigraph to her novel,
But the characteristic feature of the ridiculous age I was going through – awkward indeed but by no means infertile – is that we do not consult our intelligence and that the most trivial attributes of other people seem to us to form an inseparable part of their personality. In a world thronged with monsters and with gods, we know little peace of mind. There is hardly a single action we perform in that phase which we would not give anything, in later life, to be able to annul. Whereas what we ought to regret is that we no longer possess the spontaneity which made us perform them. In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything.
In this way, The Idiot, in my reading of it, showed itself as a passageway, a connecting tunnel between two versions of myself – the self that had just turned thirty and wanted to believe that chaos was temporary, was a mark of the good luck to come; and the former self that, dipping slowly toward adulthood, was perpetually embarrassed by how deeply I felt the world’s offerings, by how easy it was to get swept up in the desire to be seen and known. Back then, I still clung to a hope that fate was perpetually hard at work forging paths for me, opening itself up to my eyes, offering opportunity.
The “uneven quality of time” Selin describes could also speak to the unevenness of experience, how you might wait for years for something defining to happen and then, when the ordeals come, they flood in, like finding a kink in a garden hose.
The summer I turned 19, three things happened almost simultaneously that seemed to both disprove and confirm my previous faith in order. The intersection of these three events created a constellation out of chaos, a structured pattern from the tumult that, nevertheless, made none of it any easier for my inexperienced mind to process.
What happened was this: my first-ever boyfriend broke up with me in a Steak n’ Shake parking lot, my older sister came out as a lesbian to my conservative Christian parents, and the Chow-Lab mix that had been a member of our family since I was two years old—Coco—had to be put down. This all transpired in about six weeks.
It was my first summer back home again after my freshman year of college. The boy’s name was Alex. Alex played bass guitar and made zombie movies with a clunky old video camera a decade out of date. For his movies he mixed blood from corn syrup and red food dye and occasionally there were white lidded buckets sloshing in the backseat of his red Buick, with sugary trickles of gore running down the sides.
In The Idiot, Selin observes: “An amazing sight, someone you’re infatuated with trying to fish something out of a jeans pocket.” And that is a very true thing. I remember Alex and I sitting on a porch swing—we had two porcelain mugs and a bottle of red wine, but nothing to open it with. He broke the neck very neatly across an arm of the swing and poured the wine out through the jagged, gaping hole, warning me to be careful of stray shards. And the wine in the white mugs had looked just like the fake blood in those backseat buckets, and drinking it seemed dangerous, inadvisable; but I’d thought at the time that he made all of this lovely.
What he said to me was, “You’re too cool to be my girlfriend,” or maybe it was “I’m not cool enough to be your boyfriend.” Either way, I shouted at him for a while then insisted he buy me a milkshake. I concealed from everyone how devastated I was, but I remember going home afterward and eating the remnants of the pie my mother had made for my birthday a few days before, while I watched Anne of Green Gables and cried. I felt a loss that seemed to be completely incommensurate with what transpired, and so deeply ashamed by my grief that I forced myself to be alone in it.
Things with my sister I remember less clearly. She’d just finished nursing school and was living with my parents at the time. When my mother found out that my sister was dating a girl from her rugby team, she went wild with crying and praying. I remember it being ugly at first. My sister moved out almost immediately, started living in town with her girlfriend. All at once, the family was divided but didn’t know how to talk about the rift, let alone begin mending it. My mother kept a Bible handy and would quote scripture if someone tried to reason with her. For a while, they couldn’t speak to each other without erupting; I served as their go-between, delivering assurances to my mother of “No, she doesn’t hate you, she just wishes you would chill” and to my sister of “She’ll come around, just give her time.” I’d walk past my sister’s empty bedroom after she’d moved out, look in at the space of flattened carpet where her bed used to be, and feel a hideous pull, a kind of vertigo, at her absence.
The dog’s death was the last thing to happen, only a week before I headed back to school for the fall semester. We waited as long as we could, but the dog was sixteen years old, blind and arthritic, and we knew he wouldn’t survive another winter.
We discussed his death so that we’d know what to expect; so there wouldn’t be any ugly surprises. The vet even agreed to come to the house so the dog could die among familiar surroundings, without even knowing it was the end. We put our hands on him, patting, stroking, goodbye-ing. It surprised us that, when the vet took the needle from its case, the easiest vein to find on a dog is the one that runs beneath the tongue, and I felt a rush of horror when he pulled the dog’s tongue taut, turned it over like a stone, and pushed the needle into the soft bulge of pink flesh underneath. I remember realizing that would be my last memory of him—the ugly shock of the dog struggling to pull his tongue back into his mouth, his unseeing eyes going wide, the tongue quivering like the flesh inside an oyster.
The “uneven quality of time” Selin describes could also speak to the unevenness of experience, how you might wait for years for something defining to happen and then, when the ordeals come, they flood in, like finding a kink in a garden hose. I’ve read through old notebooks and journals and e-mails, trying to regain a sense of that nineteen-year-old, of how I processed the situations shaping me at the time. And the feeling I get from that younger me, the feeling in all of it that I couldn’t shake, was embarrassment; it pursued me relentlessly. I couldn’t pinpoint, as Proust has it, the “single action we perform in that phase which we would give anything, in later life, to be able to annul,” but what I most wanted to erase was the shame that followed each difficulty—ashamed that I grieved both too much and not enough for the death of the dog, that I’d been rejected by a boy who hung a zombie-bride Barbie doll from his rearview mirror, that I alternately mourned and felt nothing for the rupture in our family. That I was somehow doing it all wrong.
I did feel a weird calm at the end of that summer, the sort of numbness that recognizes an inevitable shift, like how once in first grade, I got a sudden nose bleed, and, more than the rush of blood, I was shocked by my own composure—how, without fear, I’d neatly cupped one hand around my face, raised the other to ask the teacher if I could please be excused. And in the gray-tiled restroom, at the ripe age of six, I’d wiped my face with wet paper towels and looked into the mirror and thought, “Now you’re grown.”
Each of my three difficulties, taken separately, seemed so deeply, embarrassingly average—the death of a pet, the conflict between parents and a sibling, and a first brush with heartbreak. But together, it made a flood that carved a rift between selves.
And after the summer had ended, I felt new somehow. I went to the Cost Cutters in my local mall and had the stylist chop off all my waist-length hair. She put it in a ziplock bag afterward so I could donate it to a charity that made wigs. And sitting in that hair salon, short-haired, I looked into the mirror and thought again, “Now you’re grown.” But still, it wasn’t true.
I’m not sure I believe that I’m so different now. I think the thirty-year-old who stood in knee-high floodwater and believed it was a blessing is not a far cry from the nineteen-year-old who celebrated catastrophe, stupidly, by getting a haircut. But I think I’ve lost a large measure of the embarrassment that made me self-conscious about how I managed feelings and where I directed my thoughts.
There’s a moment early in The Idiot that encapsulates this, illustrating Selin’s relationship toward her own mind and her mistrust in the value of her insight:
I was thinking about the structural equivalences between a tissue box and a book: both consisted of slips of white paper in a cardboard case; yet – and this was ironic – there was very little functional equivalence, especially if the book wasn’t yours. These were the kinds of things I thought about all the time, even though they were neither pleasant nor useful. I had no idea what you were supposed to be thinking about.
Here, Selin eloquently engages with the idea that a book and a box of tissues simultaneously have everything and nothing in common. She then isolates herself by becoming self-conscious about the thought: “I had no idea what you were supposed to be thinking about.” At nineteen, I was exactly the same. It was difficult for me to reach meaningful conclusions about the experiences I was having because I didn’t trust the value of my own thoughts and, like Selin, believed I was somehow missing out on what I was supposed to be thinking. This was, of course, one reason why I read so obsessively—why I still, at thirty, read obsessively, wanting to compare notes, to measure my private mind against those of others. This is why encountering The Idiot feels so lucky.
The Idiot not only connected me to my nineteen-year-old self, revived a conversation between us, but it also gave me access to Selin, to a mind and a consciousness that, even in her uncertainty, I came to trust. Like me, Selin’s flood of experience also makes a distinct notch on her timeline of self. And she greets her romantic disappointment, her grappling with the failures of language and the impossibilities of connection, with incredible poise and resourcefulness in spite of her regrets, in spite of regarding herself as the idiot of the book’s title. Her self-awareness is both humbling and reassuring, even if it takes an eventual accrual of distance and maturity for the narrator to articulate her tale.
At nineteen, I expected that, by thirty, my life would’ve more or less sorted itself out. It hasn’t. It is still shaped by a measure of chaos. But I try to greet the floods as they come. I try to trust the value of my thoughts and speak kindly to my former selves, even though they can’t hear me. As Selin says at one point in the novel, “Light from even a nearby star was four years old by the time it reached your eyes. Where would I be in four years? Simple: where you are. In four years I’ll have reached you.”
In this, Selin recognizes what it has taken me over a decade to learn: that we may never seem to quite catch up to ourselves—and yet, always: Here we are.
Renée Branum currently lives in Cincinnati where she is pursuing a PhD in Fiction Writing. In May of 2017, she finished her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Montana. She also received an MFA in Fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2013 where she was a Truman Capote Fellow and a recipient of the Prairie Lights Jack Leggett Fiction Prize. Renée’s fiction has appeared in Narrative Magazine, The Georgia Review, and Alaska Quarterly Review, and was recently included in Best American Nonrequired Reading’s 2019 anthology. Her nonfiction essays have been published or are forthcoming in The Gettysburg Review, Brevity, Hobart, Guernica, Literary Hub, and Boulevard among others.
The Idiot by Elif Batuman • Penguin Books, 2018 • 432 pages