Elif Batuman, “The Idiot”

What a novel!  The best I’ve read in quite a while.

One thing I like:  the way this book takes what’s become a standard bundle of complaints against “literary fiction”:

It’s about overprivileged people with boring lives.  Too much writing about writing, and too much writing about college campuses, and worst of all, too much writing about writers on college campuses.   Nothing really happens.  You’re expected to accept minor alterations of feelings in lieu of plot.  

and gleefully makes itself guilty of all of them, while being nevertheless rich in life and incident, hilarious, stirring, and of its time.

Maybe “hilarious” isn’t quite the right word for the way this book is funny, very very funny.  It’s like this:

“Ralph!” I exclaimed, realizing that he was this guy I knew, Ralph.

Whether you find this funny is probably a good test for whether The Idiot is gonna be your thing.

Given this, it’s slightly startling to me that Batuman wrote this essay in n+1, which endorses the standard critique, and in particular the claim that fiction has been pressed into a bloodless sameness by the creative writing workshop.  They bear, as she puts it, “the ghastly imprimatur of the fiction factory.”

What kind of writing bears this stamp?

Guilt leads to the idea that all writing is self-indulgence. Writers, feeling guilty for not doing real work, that mysterious activity—where is it? On Wall Street, at Sloane-Kettering, in Sudan?—turn in shame to the notion of writing as “craft.” (If art is aristocratic, decadent, egotistical, self-indulgent, then craft is useful, humble, ascetic, anorexic—a form of whittling.) “Craft” solicits from them constipated “vignettes”—as if to say: “Well, yes, it’s bad, but at least there isn’t too much of it.” As if writing well consisted of overcoming human weakness and bad habits. As if writers became writers by omitting needless words.

So what’s weird is that Batuman’s writing is exactly the kind that the creative writing workshop leaps to its feet and applauds.  OK, there’s no leaping in creative writing workshop.  It would murmur appreciatively.  Her sentences are pretty damn whittled.  Also clever.  Scenes don’t overspill, they end just before the end.  Batuman’s writing is both crafted and crafty — but not anorexic!  Anorexia isn’t denying yourself what’s needless; it’s a hypertrophy of that impulse, its extension to a more general refusal.

Batuman is really excellent on the convention of the literary short story cold open, which is required to be:

in-your-face in medias res, a maze of names, subordinate clauses, and minor collisions: “The morning after her granddaughter’s frantic phone call, Lorraine skipped her usual coffee session at the Limestone Diner and drove out to the accident scene instead.”  …. A first line like “Lorraine skipped her usual coffee session at the Limestone Diner” is supposed to create the illusion that the reader already knows Lorraine, knows about her usual coffee, and, thus, cares why Lorraine has violated her routine. It’s like a confidence man who rushes up and claps you on the shoulder, trying to make you think you already know him.

Her paradigmatic offender here is the first line of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay:

In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier’s greatest creation, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini.

about which she says:

All the elements are there: the nicknames, the clauses, the five w’s, the physical imprisonment, the nostalgia. (As if a fictional character could have a “greatest creation” by the first sentence—as if he were already entitled to be “holding forth” to “fans.”)

To me this all starts with One Hundred Years of Solitude, which all of us writers read the hell out of in high school, right?  Surely Batuman too?  No kid can read

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

and not say, oh, that’s how you do it.

Anyway, I’m mostly with Batuman here; once she shows you how it works, the trick is a little corny.  Maybe I already knew this?  Maybe this is why I always preferred the first line of, and for that matter all of, Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh to Kavalier & Clay.  Here’s the opening:

At the beginning of summer I had lunch with my father, the gangster, who was in town for the weekend to transact some of his vague business.

In medias res, yes — but not so overstuffed, just one piece of information (the gangster!) presented to start with.  No names.  The word “transact” — boy, there’s nothing I like more than a perfect placement of a boring word.  I think it’s a lot like the first line of The Idiot:

“I didn’t know what email was until I got to college.”

Except Chabon focuses on rhyme (summer-father-gangster) while Batuman is all scansion — perfect trochees!


Of course there are a lot of reasons I’m predisposed to like this.  It’s about bookish, ambitious, romantically confused Harvard undergrads, which Batuman and I both were.  There are a lot of jokes in it.  There are some math scenes.

There’s even a biographical overlap:  Batuman, wrote her college novel right after college, just like I did.  And then she finished her Ph.D. and put the manuscript in a drawer for a long time, just like I did.  (I don’t know if she carried out the intermediate step, as I did, of getting the book rejected by every big commercial house in New York.)  And then at some point in the run-up to middle age she looked at those pages again and said words to the effect of “This is not actually that bad…”

So let me say it straight; The Idiot makes me think about the alternate universe where I stayed a novelist instead of going back to grad school in math, a universe where I spent years working really hard to sharpen and strengthen the work I was doing.  This is the kind of novel I would have been aiming my ambition at writing; and I still wouldn’t have done it this well.  The existence of The Idiot releases me from any regrets.

(I don’t have many.  Math, for me, is fun.  Writing fiction is not.)





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11 thoughts on “Elif Batuman, “The Idiot”

  1. Tom Church says:

    > “Ralph!” I exclaimed, realizing that he was this guy I knew, Ralph.

    Maybe there’s hope for me to be a novelist after all!

  2. voloch says:

    The fact that she is named after a switch in a Python conditional statement is promising.

  3. Carl says:

    Batuman’s opener is iambic, not trochaic.

  4. Emmanuel Kowalski says:

    Of course I couldn’t resist looking at Jordan’s book first line.

    “I think it’s best that I begin with a legend — a mostly true one.”


  5. Mark Meckes says:

    Nice little zinger at Strunk and White in that essay.

  6. JSE says:

    I was thinking of bringing that up, but the post was already long! I think my first line is actually a little more “classical” than any of the examples above — it is not quite spoken from within the mind of a character in the narrative, but from a narrator who is slightly outside the narrative and is explicitly “telling a story.”

    As a line of prose, I was never satisfied with it: that last clause is awkward, I don’t like the way the vowel-ending of “true” clanks against the vowel-opening of “one,” but I could never think of another way to phrase it that sounded better.

    The opening of the part II, which I don’t remember having a problem with at the time, is even more explictly “I’m a narrator outside the story” — too much so: “Now that my younger self is about to enter the story, I find myself a little reluctant to get on with it.” I should have done this another way, this is just baggy throat-clearing.

    The opening of part III is much more interior, it’s showoffy and weird (I set it up reverse-chronologically), it was not in the first draft of the book, I liked it then and I liked it now. I didn’t remember that I repeated “Now that” from the part II first line and I don’t know whether I did it on purpose.

    “Now that the porter is gone, now that I’ve pressed three corrugated dollars into his grizzled hand (an old tattoo at the join of palm and wrist, a bleary peace sign); now that I’ve followed him, my single bag on my shoulder despite his entreaties, up the deep-pile eggplant-colored staircase to my room; now that I’ve walked stiff-lipped and chest-out past the loitering young toughs on the sidewalk into the hotel I’ve chosen, now that I’ve found the hotel, pinned shoulder to shoulder between two of the lacy, balconied apartment houses that loom like burly old ladies above the park; now that I’ve paid the cabdriver, now that I’ve hailed him at the airport, now that my plane has flopped to the runway with an impact that dashed my hoarded peanuts everywhere—now, that is, that I’ve arrived in New York, now that I’ve left Chandler City—I feel a little sick.”

  7. JSE says:

    Carl: I wondered about that too, it’s a little ambiguous when you both start and end on an unstressed syllable. They felt like trochees to me, possibly influenced by the word “college,” but now that I look at it again I can sort of hear it both ways.

  8. Michael says:

    I am confused about Batuman’s analogy (this probably the wrong literary term) of Cervantes’s cell. My understanding is that the “formal prison” that Cervantes found himself in is that life content has to match literary forms (so there is two prisons with one kind leading to the other). But the novel can allow you to break through this (formal) prison by writing about this mismatch between content and form. The beginning of the next paragraph is “Many of the Best American stories are set in prisons and psychiatric hospitals. They are trying to break out, but I don’t think they will.” Is “They” referring to the short stories? If so, how does Batuman go from the authors of stories to the stories themselves? How are these stories stuck in this (formal) prison and in what way can they try to break out?

  9. Yemon Choi says:

    Does anyone still go for the deliberately hackneyed opening sentence, followed up by a slight swerve in the next few paragraphs to get the reader to turn the page?

    e.g. When the office door opened suddenly I knew the game was up.

  10. Yemon Choi says:

    Also: I’ve not read The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, but those two words “the gangster” made me wince/cringe. “Your father? Which father? Oh, the gangster, right.”

    (OK, the description is there as an intensifier not a specifier, but isn’t the point of in media res to put the reader in the interior state of the narrator or narrative, in which case why ram in the description?)

    It reminds me tangentially of all the excerpts quoted cruelly by Clive James when roasting one of Judith Krantz’s novels…

  11. I agree the book is funny, at least in the beginning. The problem for me is that the main conceit, an encounter de novo with our world at a certain place and in a certain time, wears thin after a hundred or so pages, and the one charm of the book recedes.

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