I’m kind of absurdly proud of having finished Elif Batuman’s The Idiot. It’s 423 pages, and I read it on my phone because I was able to get the ebook from my library more quickly than the hard copy.

It’s a novel about Selin, a Turkish American Harvard freshman in 1995. Other than the tech, email and the internet are new phenomenon and there’s a fair amount of payphone use, I think this is still a pretty good representation of being a college freshman. Although…. I haven’t been a college freshman in a long time so who knows.

I found everything that happened in this book believable but simultaneously hilarious and sort of fantastic. Batuman is quite obvious in her sort of play on Russian novel style, this is a long novel in which nothing happens. I could see someone hating this book for that reason, but honestly I laughed out loud a lot. Selin is just a great narrator, her description of her plane landing in Turkey : “You could feel your soul sloshing around in your body, bouncing around in there like goat shit on a boat.”

The novel covers her freshman year of college and the summer and she’s focused on linguistics and takes Russian and Spanish and linguistic theory classes. She also teaches ESL in America and Hungary and picks up some Hungarian. Her ESL attempts with a Spanish speaker are hilarious:

“I felt overwhelmed by fatigue. What was I doing? For whose benefit? Who would understand what Joaquín meant by “Papel iss blonk,” let alone “Ball iss zool”? That wasn’t English. It was some kind of creole. No—a pidgin. If we had children and they grew up talking like that, they would add more grammar and then it would be a creole. It wasn’t even a creole.”

The whole novel (or at least the back half where she’s in Hungary) could probably be summed up with the Josh Joplin Group song, Trampoline:

I went abroad to break my concentration
But instead I broke my glasses lost my voice in translation
I talked but I couldn’t be heard
I never spoke a word

Language and meaning turn out to be difficult.

There’s also sort of a romance which many reviewers seemed to think was the whole story, I felt like this was more a year in the life of Selin than anything else, not a typical boy meets girl at all. So, I wouldn’t read it if you’re not open to a meandering story that just kind of covers a year in the life of an interesting thinker. I did laugh a lot.

Also read The Bertie Project by Alexander McCall Smith, which to be honest I didn’t love, but I’ll probably continue reading McCall Smith’s books because often they do hit me exactly right.

Currently reading : still Spineless, also Exit West.