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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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