One windy afternoon in 1980s Vermont, five well-dressed classicists shove their friend off a cliff. Fifty years prior, a young and beautiful English lord goes to Oxford holding a teddy bear and promptly falls prey to dipsomania. Another century before that, in southern Germany, an organic chemistry student brings to life an eight-foot-tall corpse, thereby condemning his loved ones to utter devastation.
Such is the legacy of the campus novel. Dark, dramatic, elitist—it’s easy to see how this subgenre’s cultish status bled into the mainstream, leaving hordes of students disappointed by their comparatively mild tertiary life. The average university student murders nothing but their sleep schedule, and the closest they get to electrifying reanimation is a double-shot espresso (I withhold comment on alcoholic tendencies). But Elif Batuman’s The Idiot (2017) novelises this very mundanity, capturing the humble messiness of new adulthood.
The year is 1995, and email is new. So begins the novel’s blurb, which goes on to detail the only two major events in the first volume—Selin, our awkward but endearingly honest protagonist, meets a “charismatic and worldly Serbian classmate, Svetlana,” and begins exchanging cryptic emails with her crush, an “older mathematics student from Hungary” named Ivan. In her spare time, she does her reading for ‘Beginning Russian’, a story composed to teach grammar called Nina in Siberia.
The novel has no obvious plot. Instead, like an omnibenevolent entity, Batuman holds your hand through every line, tugging you this way and that, provoking smiles at her clever turns of phrase. There’s a kind of versatility to the book that makes certain parts resonate with certain people, like an obscure and wildly irrelevant personality indicator. I was charmed by a bout of existential fear caused by Selin thinking about the Dumbo movie. A friend who studies psychology was fascinated by Selin’s crippling literalism — once, when a classmate politely asks how Selin is, she stands for ages thinking of a response; finding she cannot, she walks away without saying anything.
But not everyone responds positively to being lost in a literary maze. On Goodreads, The Idiot has several ambivalent reviews, praising its sense of humour but reviling that “much of the narrative and dialogue feels completely unnecessary”, and that “nothing seemed to be happening except a girl describing her classes at university”. One reviewer deems it to be an “uneven and frustrating read”.
It’s almost as if people are saying: this is not what a novel should be about.
In a time ravaged by plagues and political division, what good is a novel that doesn’t make any kind of ideological contribution? Even in its own sphere of campus novels, The Idiot seems egregiously apolitical. Donna Tartt’s cult novel The Secret History (1992) is an incisive, if indulgent, exposé on elite corruption; Waugh’s classic Brideshead Revisited (1945) reflects on the dying English aristocracy from a postwar perspective; Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) is a cautionary tale about scientific morality.
But what exactly is the point of The Idiot?
In an interview with Vox, Batuman describes her ideal novel: a novel about daily routine, domesticity, people whose spheres of influence include perhaps a younger sister and a pet dog—essentially, a novel that chronicles “the garbage of life”. That label is more an observation than a judgement. Often when we talk of society or culture, we’re really talking about politics, and when we talk of politics, we’re really talking about executive power. We always have our eyes glued to the big screen, the one showcasing the stage of world politics, and any piece of art that doesn’t contribute to it is often dismissed as ‘chick-lit’ by patriarchal voices.
In fact, that ideal novel of which Batuman speaks has actually existed for some time.
From Jane Austen’s portraits of 19th century quotidian life, to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, this kind of book embraces the quiet mornings, the domestic arguments, the imaginary playing of the children. Because ultimately, it’s the daily lives of the people that make up a nation, that give birth to a culture. That is the novel’s “political job”, as Batuman puts it, “to reintegrate the things we dismissed as garbage.”
As such, Batuman decries the boundary between the personal and the political which, in turn, invites us to see our boring routines in a different light: just as Selin thinks critically about the politics of eating peas in front of her crush, so should we reexamine the seemingly arbitrary nooks and crannies of our own lives.
A Guardian review posits that the “triumph of Batuman’s book is to make this period of youth matter”, and so it does— it matters, despite a lack of bloodsworn friendships, esoteric cults, or groundbreaking discoveries typical to the ‘dark academia’ genre. Despite, even, a certain blissful ignorance of the teetering political state of the world. And youth matters all the more for being clumsy, painful, and yes, idiotic– because it’s from that sophomoric mess which we find, eventually, the foundations of our place in this world.