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The Idiot
Cover of The Idiot
The Idiot
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"An addictive, sprawling epic; I wolfed it down."—Miranda July, author of The First Bad Man and It Chooses You "Easily the funniest book I've read this year." —GQA portrait of the artist as...
"An addictive, sprawling epic; I wolfed it down."—Miranda July, author of The First Bad Man and It Chooses You "Easily the funniest book I've read this year." —GQA portrait of the artist as...
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Description-

  • "An addictive, sprawling epic; I wolfed it down."
    —Miranda July, author of The First Bad Man and It Chooses You
    "Easily the funniest book I've read this year."
    GQ

    A portrait of the artist as a young woman. A novel about not just discovering but inventing oneself.

    The year is 1995, and email is new. Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, arrives for her freshman year at Harvard. She signs up for classes in subjects she has never heard of, befriends her charismatic and worldly Serbian classmate, Svetlana, and, almost by accident, begins corresponding with Ivan, an older mathematics student from Hungary. Selin may have barely spoken to Ivan, but with each email they exchange, the act of writing seems to take on new and increasingly mysterious meanings.

    At the end of the school year, Ivan goes to Budapest for the summer, and Selin heads to the Hungarian countryside, to teach English in a program run by one of Ivan's friends. On the way, she spends two weeks visiting Paris with Svetlana. Selin's summer in Europe does not resonate with anything she has previously heard about the typical experiences of American college students, or indeed of any other kinds of people. For Selin, this is a journey further inside herself: a coming to grips with the ineffable and exhilarating confusion of first love, and with the growing consciousness that she is doomed to become a writer.
    With superlative emotional and intellectual sensitivity, mordant wit, and pitch-perfect style, Batuman dramatizes the uncertainty of life on the cusp of adulthood. Her prose is a rare and inimitable combination of tenderness and wisdom; its logic as natural and inscrutable as that of memory itself. The Idiot is a heroic yet self-effacing reckoning with the terror and joy of becoming a person in a world that is as intoxicating as it is disquieting. Batuman's fiction is unguarded against both life's affronts and its beauty—and has at its command the complete range of thinking and feeling which they entail.

Excerpts-

  • From the book Fall

    I didn't know what email was until I got to college. I had heard of email, and knew that in some sense I would "have" it. "You'll be so fancy," said my mother's sister, who had married a computer scientist, "sending your e . . . mails." She emphasized the "e" and paused before "mail."

    That summer, I heard email mentioned with increasing frequency. "Things are changing so fast," my father said. "Today at work I surfed the World Wide Web. One second, I was in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One second later, I was in Anıtkabir." Anıtkabir, Atatürk's mausoleum, was located in Ankara. I had no idea what my father was talking about, but I knew there was no meaningful sense in which he had been "in" Ankara that day, so I didn't really pay attention.

    On the first day of college, I stood in line behind a folding table and eventually received an email address and temporary password. The "address" had my last name in it—Karadağ, but all lowercase, and without the Turkish ğ, which was silent. From an early age I had understood that a silent g was funny. "The g is silent," I would say in a weary voice, and it was always hilarious. I didn't understand how the email address was an address, or what it was short for. "What do we do with this, hang ourselves?" I asked, holding up the Ethernet cable.

    "You plug it into the wall," said the girl behind the table.

    Insofar as I'd had any idea about it at all, I had imagined that email would resemble faxing, and would involve a printer. But there was no printer. There was another world. You could access it from certain computers, which were scattered throughout the ordinary landscape, and looked no different from regular computers. 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. Some messages were formally epistolary, with "Dear" and "Sincerely"; others telegraphic, all in lowercase with missing punctuation, like they were being beamed straight from people's brains. 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.

    You had to wait in a lot of lines and collect a lot of printed materials, mostly instructions: how to respond to sexual harassment, report an eating disorder, register for student loans. They showed you a video about a recent college graduate who broke his leg and defaulted on his student loans, proving that the budget he drew up was no good: a good budget makes provisions for debilitating injury. The bank was a real bonanza, as far as lines and printed materials were concerned. They gave you a free dictionary. The dictionary didn't include "ratatouille" or "Tasmanian devil."

    On the staircase approaching my room, I could hear tuneless singing and the slap of plastic slippers. My new roommate, Hannah, was standing on a chair, taping a sign that read Hannah Park's Desk over her desk, chanting monotonously along with Blues Traveler on her Discman. When I came in, she turned in a pantomime of ­surprise, pitching to and fro, then jumped noisily to the floor and took off her headphones.

    "Have you considered mime as a career?" I asked.

    "Mime? No, my dear, I'm afraid my parents sent me to Harvard to become a surgeon, not a mime." She blew her...

Reviews-

  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from January 2, 2017
    The mysterious relationship between language and the world” is just one of the questions troubling Selin Karada˘g, the 18-year-old protagonist of Batuman’s (The Possessed) wonderful first novel, a bildungsroman Selin narrates with fluent wit and inexorable intelligence. Beginning her first year at Harvard in the fall of 1995, Selin is determined to “be a courageous person, uncowed by other people’s dumb opinions”; she already thinks of herself as a writer, although “this conviction was completely independent of having ever written anything.” In a Russian class, the Turkish-American Selin is befriended by the worldlier Svetlana, whose Serbian family has endowed her with capital and complexes, and the older Hungarian math major Ivan, who becomes Selin’s correspondent in an exciting new medium: email. Their late-night exchanges inspire Selin more than anything else in her life, but they frustrate her, too: Ivan’s intentions toward her are vague, perhaps even to himself. Traveling to Paris with Svetlana in the summer of 1996, Selin plans to continue on to Hungary, where she will teach English in a village school, and then to Turkey, where her extended family resides. Thus Batuman updates the grand tour travelogue just as she does the epistolary novel and the novel of ideas, in prose as deceptively light as it is ambitious. One character wonders whether it’s possible “to be sincere without sounding pretentious,” and this long-awaited and engrossing novel delivers a resounding yes.

  • Kirkus

    Starred review from December 15, 2016
    A sweetly caustic first novel from a writer whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and n+1. It's fall 1995, and Selin is just starting her first year at Harvard. One of the first things she learns upon arriving at her new school is that she has an email account. Her address contains her last name, "Karada?, but all lowercase, and without the Turkish ?, which was silent." When presented with an Ethernet cable, she asks "What do we do with this, hang ourselves?" All of this occurs on the first page of Batuman's (The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, 2011) debut novel, and it tells us just about everything we need to know about the author's thematic concerns and style. Selin's closest friends at Harvard are Ralph, a ridiculously handsome young man with a Kennedy fetish, and Svetlana, a Serbian from Connecticut. Selin's first romantic entanglement--which begins via electronic mail--is with Ivan, a Hungarian mathematician she meets in Russian class. Selin studies linguistics and literature, teaches ESL, and spends a lot of time thinking about what language--and languages--can and cannot do. This isn't just bloodless philosophizing, though. Selin is, among other things, a young woman trying to figure out the same things young people are always trying to figure out. And, as it happens, Selin is delightful company. She's smart enough to know the ways in which she is dumb, and her off-kilter relationship to the world around her is revelatory and, often, mordantly hilarious. For example, this is how she describes a particular linguistics class: "we learned about people who had lost the ability to combine morphemes, after having their brains perforated by iron poles. Apparently there were several such people, who got iron poles stuck in their heads and lived to tell the tale--albeit without morphemes." Some readers may get impatient with the slow pace of the narrative, which feels more like a collection of connected microfictions than a traditional novel, but readers who are willing to travel with Selin at her own contemplative pace will be grateful that they did. Self-aware, cerebral, and delightful.

    COPYRIGHT(2016) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    October 1, 2016
    As evidenced by her National Book Critics Circle finalist, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, Batuman is a refreshingly different breed of critic, offering intriguingly personal and at-a-slant takes showing what the books she reads mean in her life (and maybe yours). Her tartly told first novel examines what happens to Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, when she lands at Harvard in 1995 and gradually reimagines herself through first love and an equally important new passion, writing.

    Copyright 2016 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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