A loose, baggy monster, full of irrelevant garbage and needless words — and all the richer for it — the book implicitly makes an argument for what a twenty-first-century novel might be ... In Batuman’s view, integrating the new and the familiar, the personal and the canonical, is precisely what the novel ought to do. But this integration isn’t simply an intellectual process; it’s what happens in all coming-of-age stories ... As idiosyncratic Hungarians continue to materialize, it begins to feel as though Batuman is giving us an object lesson in distinguishing between the tastefully modest craft of fiction and the ungainly ambition of literature ... Batuman is virtuosic in articulating the internal workings of this moment. Her compassion for the agony of those attempting to forge a connection through words is perceptive, intelligent, and funny. In The Idiot, she has heeded the rallying cry she issued in n+1: 'Write long novels, pointless novels. Do not be ashamed to grieve about personal things. Dear young writers, write with dignity, not in guilt. How you write is how you will be read.'”
It’s memorable to witness Selin, via Batuman, absorb the world around her. Each paragraph is a small anthology of well-made observations ... Small pleasures will have to sustain you over the long haul of this novel. The Idiot builds little narrative or emotional force. It is like a beautiful neon sign made without a plug. No glow is cast ... Sexual heat is at a minimum. This is too bad, because Batuman has a rich sense of the details of human attachment and lust ... There are two things I admire about this novel. One is the touching sense, here as in everything Batuman writes, that books are life. Selin is, convincingly and only slightly pretentiously, the sort of person who buys an overcoat because it reminds her of Gogol’s...I also liked Selin’s determination to be 'someone trying to live a life unmarred by laziness, cowardice, and conformity.' She’s an interesting human who, very much like this wry but distant novel, never becomes an enveloping one.
However such detailed realism was achieved—mining old diaries? wolfing down packs of madeleines from Harvard vending machines?—the effectiveness of the evocation is undeniable: We have arrived back in college in the mid-1990s ... This [Hungarian section] is Batuman in her element—writing about Batuman (sorry, Selin) out of her element—but though the setting and subject matter play to her strengths as a humorist, there is a noticeable slackening of narrative focus. A sense of futility starts to take over the novel, which gradually becomes a kind of depressive picaresque ... But if The Idiot is a defiantly imperfect novel, its imperfection feels both true to Selin’s teenage confusion and true to Batuman’s long-standing critique of fictional 'craft.' There is certainly a great deal of writerly skill on display in The Idiot—as a maker of sentences and scenes, Batuman is masterful—but she is committed to retaining a certain randomness that evokes the mess of real life.
...[an] idiosyncratic and unforgettable first novel ... incident isn’t what draws you into The Idiot. Character is. From the beginning, the reader notices that Selin is very intelligent but also somewhat aloof, not quite together. Her combination of ambition and aimlessness is a very recognizable type ... Readers of Batuman’s nonfiction in The New Yorker and of her previous book, The Possessed will recognize the signature blend of Batumanian intelligence and lightly ironic detachment in that voice.
...a quirky, somewhat disquieting meditation on disengagement ... There are many rambling pages throughout this narrative that have no apparent purpose. Empty discussions with friends, acquaintances and teachers seem inserted for mere distraction ... Both Batuman and her alter ego seem not to have learned that there is no sanctuary — not in the outside world and most certainly not in the deepest recesses of our minds. Both realms are fraught with unseen dangers. Batuman’s book is a somewhat agitating contemplation about what it feels like when you choose to take yourself out of the world and live inside your thoughts. In some ways, her novel mirrors a growing and upsetting trend among so many young people who seem to have given up on the possibility of love and jubilation and euphoria before they have even tasted it.
Batuman’s novel is roaringly funny. It is also intellectually subtle, surprising, and enlightening. It is a book fueled by deadpan wonder ... ead this book, revel in this book, an academic novel that is not only about the absurdity of higher learning but is also about the love of learning. Batuman has written a romantic comedy about the romance of language, a metacomic novel of ideas, and an adventure in grammar. The Idiot is an epic tale of words and the people who love them and live by them ... The comic genius of Selin as a character is that she sees absurdity and creates absurdity by how she sees. She is a perfect comic creation, and a touching one, too.
The Idiot is full of that wonderful, embarrassing kind of early pretention that consists of trying on roles like coats ... I loved these moments, when Batuman lays bare the script we follow without thinking about it ... The Idiot encapsulates those years of humiliating, but vibrant, confusion the come in your late teens, a confusion that's not even sexual, but existential and practical ... The Idiot replicates the feeling of those years when stories don't seem to match up with lived experience and it's not clear if it's your fault or the world's. Like that time, The Idiot is both boring and strangely intense, fraught and apparently meaningless, confusing and inevitable, endless — and over in a moment.
The Idiot is a coming-of-age novel that doesn’t arrive and a love story that goes no further than awkward handshakes ... The title is itself a dry joke, since the novel has only the faintest echoes of Dostoevsky’s classic account of a young man whose goodness is continually mistaken for stupidity. Instead Ms. Batuman adheres to the Karl Ove Knausgaard school of autobiographical realism, scrupulously resisting the temptations of plot development in order to achieve a more authentic effect. She is also notably abstemious. Not only is the book entirely chaste, Selin is possibly the only undergrad in America who doesn’t drink. 'I can’t believe you want to go through this sober,' Ivan tells her during one encounter, speaking for everyone.
Very tall, with an unusual face, a Turkish-American girl who grew up in New Jersey, attends Harvard, and aspires to be a writer, Selin is clearly a stand-in for Batuman. Moreover, parts of The Idiot replicate almost verbatim sections from essays in The Possessed ... Batuman nails the details of mid-1990s college life. Albert Einstein, REM, and Ansel Adams posters, Edward Gorey and Klimt prints abound. We have snoring roommates, fajita night in the cafeteria, meet-ups for frozen yogurt, CARE packages from parents, halogen lamps, black Jersey clothes from the Gap, fake IDs ... The Idiot is told in short, largely self-contained segments, a tactic that makes for sharp, well-defined scenes but sometimes undermines the novel’s flow, coherence, and elegance. It also peters out rather unsatisfactorily. But Selin is such good company that we easily forgive any formal lapses. At once a cutting satire of academia, a fresh take on the epistolary novel, a poignant bildungsroman, and compelling travel literature, The Idiot is also a touching and spirited portrait of the artist as a hugely appealing young woman.
...the novel’s lifeblood is Batuman’s observations of our struggles to communicate. Whether it’s teaching ESL classes or studying linguistics, Selin is cornered into moments that expose just how prone to confusion we are ... Selin is aware that an American teenager is 'the world’s least interesting and dignified kind of person.' But Batuman also knows that her struggle is a timeless one. 'Why were we all so bad at writing stories?' her hero asks. 'What were we missing? When would we get better?'
...a hefty, gorgeous, digressive slab of a book ... It lopes along like a highbrow episode of Louie, a series of silly, surreal, confident riffs about humiliations, minor and major. It is a rejoinder to the pressure on literature to serve as self-help, to make us empathetic or better informed, to be useful. Here, fiction’s only mandate is to exploit the particular freedom afforded by the form — to coast on the charm and peculiar sensibility of our narrator ... Her instincts are, in general, excellent — she is Selin, more or less — save the odd, unhappy decision to repurpose details, characters, conversations and even whole scenes from her previous book ... for all [the] moments of evasion, there is more oxygen, more life in this book, than in a shelf of its peers.
Like her essays, Batuman’s bildungsroman is a succession of droll misadventures built around chance encounters, peculiar conversations and sharp-eyed observations. Both on campus and abroad, she brings the ever-fresh perspective of a perpetual stranger in a strange land. Her deceptively simple declarative sentences are underpinned by a poker-faced sense of absurdity and humor so dry it calls for olives ... Batuman captures the way college freshmen lurch between arrogance and insecurity, shortchange themselves on sleep, and obsess over relationships, budding or otherwise ... The Idiot is not just a campus novel but also a vibrant novel of ideas.
The Idiot is wonderful. Batuman has brave and original ideas about what a 'novel' might mean and no qualms about flouting literary convention. She is endlessly beguiled by the possibilities and shortcomings of language ... Her novel is gloriously stuffed with detritus, with characters that serve no narrative purpose and details that mean nothing beyond themselves ... In allowing her language and details to pile up randomly, Batuman makes them more than they might otherwise be. She gives presence and power to what previously 'didn’t exist.'”
Set in the painful and exhilarating transition to adulthood, The Idiot is an epic exploration of language, love and culture. Written with humor, intelligence and a generous sense of empathy, Ms. Batuman creates a world that is readily identifiable to anyone who remembers what it’s like to be a teenager on the cusp of the adult world ... The Idiot takes the familiar tale of a lovesick teenager and elevates it with the author’s gift for examining how language both unites — Ivan and Selin spend half of the novel talking only through email — and separates, since their inability to understand each other means neither truly understand what the other is feeling ... Ms. Batuman ambitiously creates a world for Selin that is only possible with the internet — yet, one that is timelessly applicable to anyone who has ever struggled to invent themselves in adulthood.
The Idiot is in one sense a coming-of-age story of a fairly traditional kind, and yet Selin's developing consciousness is a stranger and more fun place to be than most: She sets about not knowing what she wants with rare energy and purpose, and meets the pains and indignities of youth with an unfailing, almost cheerful curiosity ... Although the sheer entertainment her prose offers doesn't require that we constantly think about how it works, Batuman is an unapologetically literary creature. She knows that the way you tell a story is the story ... The Idiot is a portrait of a mind examining itself and everything else, an argument for the occasional generous error, and an incidental confirmation—not in its plot but in its execution, which is the only way a novel can confirm anything—of the theory that it's possible to make anyone fall in love with you.
...a funny, thoughtful and poignant portrait of an artist as a young woman ... Batuman takes her time with this journey of self-discovery; readers looking for propulsive narrative drive ought to look elsewhere. The Idiot meanders; it’s willing to risk coming off as slow (sometimes, it is) ... There is plenty that moves and is interesting, here; the truth with which it unfolds gives it a wonder and beauty all its own.
For this reader, though, the book’s pleasures come not from the 400-page, low-and-slow smolder of its central relationship, which can at times feel like nothing more than two repressions circling one another; rather, it is Selin herself. Acutely self-conscious but fiercely intelligent, she consistently renders a strange, mordantly funny and precisely observed world ... While there are memorable scenes — a semi-grotesque child pageant Selin is asked to judge, a bucolic canoe ride with Ivan — the pacing flags [in the second half]. I missed the spark and crackle of campus life, Selin’s surgical deflating of puffed-up professors, the ice-shagged streets of Boston ... Still, Selin’s is a consciousness one does not want to part with; by the end of the book, I felt as if I were in the presence of a strange, slightly detached, utterly brilliant friend.
Batuman wittily and wisely captures the tribulations of a shy, cerebral teenager struggling with love, friendship, and whether to take psycholinguistics or philosophy of language. Where many fictional depictions of young women show them exploring their sexuality and navigating romance, Selin is the rare heroine who’s too diffident to act on her sexual feelings toward Ivan ... This meandering approach to a novel can chafe. Memories of my own college days of nerdy unrequited love and intellectual insecurity make Selin’s story engrossing to me, but for those whose life took a different path, the internal monologue of a Harvard student in the ‘90s might seem precious and trivial.
There are mica-glints of beauty everywhere in it, the author's voice eccentric, funny, enormously intelligent ... But Batuman also attempts to make The Idiot the kind of novel that tells a story — sort of, anyway, the story of a young woman's first year at Harvard, and the story isn't good at all. The effect is half-ruinous, a skilled writer forcing herself into the contours of a weak book. It would be hard to regret reading it; harder still to read it a second time ... the second half of the book, it falls apart. Selin goes to teach English in Hungary, and her account of it is interminable. I kept willing The Idiot to lurch forward a year, even a month, to offer a surprise. Instead it marches grimly on, as if in tribute to some forgotten army from the country where it's set ... In general, in fact, Batuman has no gift whatsoever for character, at least not one that's evident here, the Svetlanas and Bills and Ferns as blurry in their outlines as your own freshman-year acquaintances probably are to you ... Batuman finds herself trapped between mocking her autobiography and cherishing it ... [an] honorable defeat, its unforgettable spikes of truth embedded in a wasted plot.
...an uproarious debut that funnels her same academic wit and intellectual earnestness into the overactive mind of Selin, a linguistics-obsessed Harvard freshman ... To truly appreciate the narrative urgency of Selin’s story, one needs to feel, like Batuman, that academic inquiry can be as compelling as a detective story ... Some will—and have—complained that The Idiot suffers from narrative stasis...readers might be forgiven for becoming impatient with the first hundred pages, which cycle through headlines torn from Selin’s internal reportage ... The Idiot provides a flawed but promising model for what the new American 'literature' might look like. While many readers and reviewers—not to mention most of Selin’s acquaintances—are bound to find her sexual inertia and exegetical wheel-spinning maddening, Batuman has succeeded in renovating the psychological novel and the coming-of-age story.
A dark and riveting mystery ... occasionally, the narrative shapeshifts into three columns per page, each describing the same moment from a different point of view. The effect is terrifically eerie — it's as if the characters are feeling a sense of bodily disassociation, whether due to drug use or extreme fear ... the thriller transcends its genre to become a fascinating study in generational trauma ... Dustin passes on his difficulty relating to the world to at least one of his sons, who unbeknownst to his father, has developed a hard drug habit. This subplot, like the others, is frequently engaging but feels ancillary until the end. But that's a welcome change from mainstream thriller writing — too few writers prize atmosphere as much as narrative tautness. With Ill Will, Chaon succeeds at delivering both.
Batuman tries to pull off a balancing act in The Idiot. Selin, unplugged from her own emotions and uncertain of her own likes and dislikes, is supposed to hold our attention for 400-plus pages as she attempts to address her own formlessness. Batuman allows her some unexpected screwball-comedy moments. But by novel’s end, Selin is still coming up blank. She is, as she puts it, 'living pointless, shapeless days that weren’t bringing me closer to anything.' It may be brave of Batuman to give us a character so stumped by herself and her surroundings. But it’s not entirely satisfying.
I slipped so completely into Batuman’s fictional world, convinced of its truth, that when I reminded myself that Batuman had written a novel, not a memoir, I felt let down. I so wanted it all to be real. But why? ... The layered truths and fictions of The Idiot compounded so that everything in the novel became true and real in a deep, shining way that cannot be achieved through essays.
This over-analysis is familiar to anyone who knows about dating in 2017, but Batuman still manages to make the shift from face-time to screen-time romance feel new and confusing, and interesting ... The Idiot has a tonal consistency throughout that many contemporary authors struggle to maintain, if they can latch onto one at all. It is poignant, and tentative, and carefully caustic. It is at turns depressingly real, and unbelievably hilarious ... an impressive debut with a ridiculous amount of charm and a protagonist so relatable she’s almost impossible to forget. Where it might lose readers is in its structure. The novel, at times, reads more experimentally than most modern American fiction.
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 ... 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.
However, rather than focusing on any one idiot, this novel (Batuman’s first) investigates the particular idiocy of human ambition. Of youthful mishap. Of the relentless endeavoring to control or predict the course of our lives and identities ... In many ways, though, The Idiot, does map onto a prevailing mode in contemporary, of-the-moment fiction. The meanderings and marginality of a character in a large, impersonal, often bewildering order ...the book traffics in a very canny, very funny kind of academic parody ... Batuman, who studied comparative literature, is a great English deployer of a very Russian kind of parabolic storytelling ... Like a Russian parable, Batuman is interested in telling and reiterating the central fact of human inadequacy. Idiocy. But, drawing from a British tradition of novel writing (from Eliot to Austen to Dickens), she is also careful about balancing her judgement with a sympathetic sense of condescension.
The few reviews that have mentioned sex at all have largely complained about its absence. But it’s precisely that absence that animates The Idiot and allows Batuman to present a more nuanced answer to the riddle: two people might fail to sleep together because they either can’t or won’t negotiate the power dynamic that physical intimacy inevitably requires ... Batuman is a crystalline stylist. Whenever her sentence constructions feel awkward, a character is trying to express something that language has trouble expressing ... I found something admirable about Selin’s stubborn skepticism, perhaps because it’s grounded in her faith in language ... if The Idiot only describes the tip of the problem, it nonetheless points out both the problem and how much our language, so at ease with describing linguistic theory and croissants, struggles to articulate it.
In some ways, this novels feels like evidence for those who might argue that writing cannot be taught. Batuman’s eye is good, her descriptions so emphatically her own, it seems unbelievable that anyone could match it ... The prose is simple and to the point and the manner in which Batuman deconstructs the familiar is impressive and makes reading, on a sentence-to-sentence level, a joy ... At times, the novel can seem too stuffed full with characters and ideas that it can’t follow all of its relevant threads...it can be exhausting and disappointing to lose grip of people so quickly ... Still, Batuman’s brilliance is always shining through.
...[a] wonderful first novel ... 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.
Batuman’s novel is best when it captures the difficulty of both living and reflecting during these young-adult times. Readers may be equally relieved when closing the book, that (hopefully) the awkward teen years are behind them.
It’s mostly bland and boring. At over 400 pages, it also feels interminable ... Unfortunately, the story is devoid of plot. Nor does it qualify as episodic; a series of tightly structured events would have been welcome. Instead, we get a roving look at life at Harvard, followed by a slightly more focused depiction of Selin’s time in Hungary ... Ultimately, you cannot but wonder why Batuman wrote such a meandering and listless novel.
The voice throughout is colloquial and humorous. And as a reading experience, it is enjoyable: a generously capacious book that creates an alternative world for the reader to inhabit in a manner comparable to the Russian novels that Batuman loves ... What is at stake here is whether Selin can continue to commit generous errors in the face of such humiliation; whether she can continue so earnestly in her attempt to learn how to live. The triumph of Batuman’s book is to make this period of youth matter.
...the atmosphere at the heart of The Idiot is one of linguistic alienation, when the distance between what words say and what they mean seems insurmountable ... All of this distance and alienation keeps the reader at a certain remove from Selin, as well; her deadpan voice is endearing, but it holds you at arm’s length. The Idiot is not a book that wants you to get wrapped up in its characters when you could be reveling in all of its linguistic games instead.
The novel’s college scenes are electrified by the thrill of self-discovery ... Batuman has a gift for imaginative description, brilliant digressions, and deadpan comic delivery ... The reviewers who have been critical of The Idiot have focused on Selin’s pursuit of Ivan, and it’s true that when the couple are together the novel loses its brisk pace and antic charm...But I think Batuman made those scenes drag on purpose. Selin, a master of the tools of language, is drawn to the idea that her life should tell a story—specifically a love story between her and Ivan. Maybe she is mistaken. Maybe she is trying too hard. In any case, her effort to construct that story leads her astray, if not to Siberia, at least to its emotional equivalent. The Idiot, Batuman has said, is about life 'falling outside of narrative.' It dramatizes a semiotic tragedy perfectly suited for its brainy Harvard undergraduate—the alienation, and even heartbreak, of losing the narrative thread of your existence.
Batuman is a justly celebrated staff writer for the New Yorker, and The Idiot contains much of what makes her journalism so winning. It is a very funny book, full of zingy one-liners and arch, deflationary observations about the absurdities of academia and adolescence ... the second half of The Idiot is bittier and less shaped than the first, composed of a series of brilliantly observed vignettes that never quite resolve themselves into a greater meaning. On the whole Batuman’s wit, the oddness of her eye, and her perfect deadpan delivery will sustain you through this.
While it would be easy to tear down this book because of its lack of plot or drama, the truth is, the story does exert a strange pull. Batuman is an exceedingly talented writer, both in terms of psychological insight and her delightful habit of pointing out oddities ... While this novel falls short of being entirely satisfactory, it’s certainly a rewarding read in its own way. Here’s hoping she will write another, more ambitious novel one day.