July 8th, 2017
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The novel’s “plot” goes like this: wryly observant, unconventional Selin has a deep, abiding crush on Ivan, her email pen pal and partner in philosophical and linguistic ruminations. He seems not uninterested, either: they meet in class, they write long emails soliloquizing about their own concerns, and they walk around Cambridge, and walk, and talk. He introduces her to beer, which she doesn’t like at all. Though she grows to love him deeply, he never seduces her—not at Harvard and not in his native Hungary, where she spends the summer at his suggestion. He has another girlfriend, mostly offstage, the whole time.
Is Ivan toying with Selin, or does he have feelings that he won’t act on? We never truly know, and neither does she. The reader is reminded, excruciatingly, that not every intense connection in a young person’s life explodes into sex, blossoms into love, or ends in disaster after one of those two outcomes. Sometimes our formative relationships remain cerebral, platonic, and even Curb Your Enthusiasm-level awkward—even when we want them to be otherwise. (In her nonfiction writing, too, Batuman has shown herself to be a skilled connoisseur of awkwardness.)
But just because there’s no sex in this relationship doesn’t mean there isn’t a charge, what Ivan calls a “power thing,” when he and Selin debrief their friendship towards the novel’s end. One of many brutally realistic aspects of The Idiot is its portrayal of how smart young men keep smart young women around them, close but at arm’s length. It makes the men feel enlightened, maybe—or maybe they are confused about what they want. Ivan certainly seems to leave the door open for Selin to flirt, but she’s not able to step in with confidence, and he won’t pull her along. Instead, she fixates on her empty inbox and her not-ringing dorm phone, brooding, leaving us with her mordant observations.