It might seem that there is not much left to say regarding Elif Batuman’s debut novel: since its release in March of last year The Idiot has received generous coverage from nearly every literary-oriented publication in the United States. By now the reviews have long been in. There was the rave from Cathleen Schine in the New York Review of Books, and the extensive, though not wholly uncritical, assessment by the New York Times: Dwight Garner confessed in the Books section that The Idiot left him tired and thirsty, while Parul Sehgal, for the Book Review, found it stellar and relatable. In an end-of-year summation, New York magazine book critic Christian Lorentzen named The Idiot the third-best book of 2017—“exquisitely droll,” “a stylistic tour de force.”
Meanwhile, both Evan Kindley and Molly Fischer have explored, in their respective reviews for the Nation and Harper’s, the link between Batuman’s novel and her essays on American fiction (most notably “Short Story & Novel” for n+1 in 2006 and “Get a Real Degree” in the London Review of Books in 2010), in which the author scolded, elaborately, with humor, and at length, the entire literary field. Debuting in n+1 in 2005 with a weighty essay meditating on the legacies of Isaac Babel, Batuman sprang into the world of publishing fully formed as a critic who could seamlessly combine the concepts and reach of academic scholarship with a keen sense of humor and a willingness to declare her dislikes openly. She cast particular blame on MFA programs for fostering a dull, anemic relation to literary language and failing to properly teach literary classics, particularly her beloved nineteenth-century French and Russian novels.
Kindley and Fischer both argued that, in effect, Batuman the artist practiced what Batuman the critic preached. Acknowledging (as almost all reviews did) that The Idiot has trouble maintaining narrative thrust, they concluded that its lack of plot was intentional and therefore justified. “The Idiot may be an imperfect work of literature—a long, personal, and, in some sense, pointless novel—but it is deliberately, conspicuously so,” writes Kindley. Fischer, in a review more attuned to The Idiot’s feminine dimension, concludes similarly: “In The Idiot, [Batuman] 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.’” The dignity of the novel lay in its refusal to have something so vulgar as a direction. Furthermore, this lack of direction could be framed as the hallmark of a larger movement. Kindley placed Batuman in the company of “autofiction” writers such as Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner and Karl Ove Knausgaard, who intentionally reduced the distance between author and protagonist to a bare minimum: their first-person narrators, too, were endowed with the same prodigious sensibility as their authors and their narratives also tracked, in an aimless, journal-like fashion, the details of their authors’ lived experience.
It’s the sort of argument one gets a liberal arts degree to take seriously, and it seems especially apt when applied to The Idiot, which like most of Batuman’s writing displays a deep investment in the relation between literature and higher education. The aspiration, often frustrated, of uniting the most eminent degree of institutional education with the highest literary achievement hovers over all her compositions. Batuman’s first published book, a linked set of essays titled The Possessed, focused on her experiences as a doctoral student in Russian literature at Stanford University. Whether there, in The Idiot, or in her n+1 and LRB polemics, Batuman consistently frames her own composition as arising from gaps and failures in a program of literary education. As the books one cherishes fail to correspond to lived experience, an impulse toward criticism emerges that bears within it the seeds of new literature. Thwarted by school, disappointed in love (Batuman’s conception of the link between education and romance verges on the Platonic), the writer recovers from her disorientation by representing it.
Yet not all programs are created equally. In spite of Batuman’s stirring faith that literature, literary theory, and the study of both in elite universities form a consistent unity, the question remains as to whether Batuman’s practice as a novelist successfully avoids the charges of polished tedium she levels at program fiction in her criticism. “In technical terms, pretty much any MFA graduate leaves Stendhal in the dust,” she wrote near the end of her LRB essay. “On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read.” Her Idiot possesses delicacy, humor and weight. But is it a book we actually want to read? And if not, what can it tell us about the kind of reading we do want?
Batuman’s novel is written in the first person and consists of two halves. The first is set on the East Coast: it is 1995, and Selin Karadag˘ is a Turkish-American woman in her late teens, raised in New Jersey and now entering her freshman year at Harvard. Selin has decided to become a writer, but she reasons that the most effective route to achieve this goal is to specialize in linguistics while reading classic novels in her spare time. The major demands knowledge of a foreign language, and it is in her introductory course in Russian that she makes two older friends hailing from the former Soviet bloc: Ivan, a Hungarian, and Svetlana, a Serb. Though Ivan is a senior with a girlfriend, he and Selin commence an unconsummated romance based (as Svetlana coolly observes) on a shared passion for reductive abstraction. The novel’s second half is set in the Eastern Hemisphere where, attracted by Ivan, Selin has signed up for a summer program teaching English in the Hungarian countryside; this Hungarian sojourn is bookended by stays with Svetlana in Paris and with her maternal family in Turkey. The novel ends with Selin returning to Harvard for her sophomore year. “I hadn’t learned anything at all,” she says. The novel is 432 pages long.
What the novel lacks in plot and interaction it makes up for in observation and style. Certain water-adjacent sections (a Massachusetts lake trip and a voyage by the Danube) are rendered with an attentiveness worthy of Tolstoy; Selin’s capacity to condense the objects of her vision into mots justes is evident on virtually every page. For all her self-confessed inexperience, Selin is strong-willed, intelligent and above all funny. From the second sentence on the reader is peppered with jokes and comic observations whose tone and format will be familiar to readers of The Possessed. Yet the book’s inertia occurs not in spite but because of the strength of Selin’s personality and perception. Her stolid dedication to her own beliefs—in the necessity of becoming a writer, in being able to live beyond conformity and illusion—ensures that she never surrenders her will to any other person or idea in the book. This same sense of self-possession ensures that those beliefs are never interrogated or developed. It also means that every figure in the novel besides Selin (including Ivan and Svetlana) is forgettable: whatever their degree of sound, fury, they can signify nothing within a narrative field of vision ruled by an invincible solipsism.
Some acquaintances have derived great and unmixed pleasure from The Idiot, while others have been unable to finish or enjoy it. My own experience was contradictory, tilting between sublime appreciation and intense frustration without being able to settle on either. The frustration had little to do with a failure of identification. If the book’s positive reviewers adored Batuman for seeming to resonate with their own feminine, writerly or academic experiences, I too had grounds for sympathy: as a child of an immigrant medical professional; as a literary critic who takes the French and Russian novel of the nineteenth century as a gold standard; as an American neither white nor black; as someone who thinks they could write a novel; as a product of Stanford, where I occasionally glimpsed Batuman’s incongruously tall profile near the comparative-literature building we both frequented; as a writer who debuted in n+1; as a social acquaintance.
It seemed to me that the novel was at once better and worse than its critics had appreciated. The Idiot is indeed intentionally plotless, but it is hardly formless, strung through as it is with leitmotifs (foreign languages and translation, the color pink, Chinese people, remains of the Soviet bloc, hedgehogs) that make themselves available to larger social resonance without dictating that they be read as such. The female reviewers (virtually all white, aside from the Times’s Sehgal) who have made much of the similarity of Selin’s experience with their own—and her story certainly has some bearing on the experience of that class of seemingly directionless women with liberal arts degrees—neglected to observe the degree to which Selin’s alienation is predicated on an absence of social definition common to the children of immigrants who are neither white nor black, nor questioned its relation to the wanderlust that animates Batuman’s writing both in and out of The Idiot. There is no less cause to connect her with Ottessa Moshfegh and Tao Lin (powerfully alienated writers, neither white nor black, lacking interest in identitarian self-description) than with Knausgaard and Heti—even though The Idiot is manifestly a work of autofiction, whose imperfections (torpor passed off as depth, terminal incuriosity about the inner lives of others, the feel of being a rebranded memoir) are consistent with those of the genre at large.
Ultimately, my frustration with The Idiot was based not on any displeasure with autofiction as a genre, but on the realization that, though executed at an unprecedented level of polish and formal complexity, the book’s profile—a collage of striking aperçus hitched to an anemic plot and opaque characters—was basically the same as those of the MFA fiction Batuman had so winningly condemned. (“All that great writing, trapped in mediocre books! Who, indeed, has time to read them?”) Coupled with the critical discourse around the novel itself, this internal dissonance suggested a broader continuity. What if the rise of autofiction marked not a break away from program fiction, but its continuation, perhaps even its culmination?
The adventurous supposition, readily extrapolated from Batuman’s criticism, that her fiction extends the line of Don Quixote and the nineteenth-century continental novel is largely inaccurate—her writing has far more in common with twentieth-century literary theorists who labored to view the realist classics as sets of grammatical functions independent of character. Still, the high value she sets on that tradition hardly seems misplaced. Suppose that The Red and the Black is indeed a book you actually want to read. Is it because it possesses what we now call realism—a staunch fidelity to concrete details filtered seamlessly into intimations of mood? In fact, the novel lacks the tactile descriptions and recessive psychology that have come to be associated with realism. Stendhal is content to summarize physical reality because he deems personality, revealed in moments of decisive action and conversation, more deserving of attention. His realism is one where characters and events stand on a higher order than objects and thoughts.
But much the same could be said of a writer of vapid thrillers. What endows Stendhal’s active realism at once with the consistency so often absent from genre fiction and the narrative propulsion that autofiction and “program fiction” lack? It isn’t simply emotional acuity or intellectual prowess—whatever the defects of contemporary American writing may be, a lack of concentration on inner feeling is not one of them, and its authors, particularly those who receive the lion’s share of critical attention and acclaim, are more highly educated than ever before.
Stendhal successfully avoids a trade-off between intellectual mass and narrative acceleration because he possesses a different conception of the relation between the novel—an aesthetic form—and doctrines specifying the proper conduct and organization of human beings in society—ideology. The engine of The Red and the Black is the ambition of Julien Sorel, an ambition fueled by avid readings of Rousseau and Napoleon: from the first Julien’s destiny is tied to the afterlife of the Revolution, carried out by Rousseau’s disciples, whose social transformations Napoleon secured before his fall.
Stendhal didn’t have to discover this kind of relation purely on his own. Since Don Quixote—since the inception of the Western novel itself—there have existed novels powered by direct engagement with ideology. For Cervantes and Mary Shelley, for Stendhal and Melville, for Dostoevsky and Bely and Platonov, for Fitzgerald, Ellison and Morrison, ideology could serve as an indispensable catalyst: to begin with, it allowed the author to make a vital distinction between themselves and their protagonists. The writer wasn’t a blind believer in ideology x, but the main character was, and their foolish belief (punctuated by momentary insights) was what drove him or her forward into society, with consequences that were as tragic as they were humorous and memorable.
Through their idiot protagonists these novelists and their readers became more intimately acquainted with ideology x than any believer: the plot generated by their protagonists’ pursuit of x’s tenets exposed the implications of x to an extent that the political discourse surrounding x, constrained by polemic opposition and assertion, never could. The quantum facts of daily life, the pawnshops, manors, samovars, Thursday evenings and horse-driven cabs, were to this novel what the skin is to the body: a surface of mostly dead matter whose purpose was informing, concealing and protecting all the other vital systems. They were necessary, and they were most of what could be seen, but to reduce the novel to them would be false, incomplete—literally superficial. The “reality” of this ideological realism was not inert material to be quarried and crafted, but animate: a triple collision between the individual conscience, the society in which the idiot operates, and the ideology (conquistador chivalry, Promethean science, Gnostic materialism, Napoleonic romanticism, revolutionary communism, Gatsbian romanticism, revolutionary communism, white supremacy) that would shape conscience and society according to its own dictates.
So the history of the novel can’t, as Batuman has repeatedly proposed in her criticism, be collapsed to a tautology where Literature gives rise to itself from the discrepancy between prior Literature and present Life. True, Cervantes created a book out of Don Quixote’s confusion of his favorite books with real life, but the system of beliefs codified in those books was hardly a private affair to begin with. The same fanaticism that drove Quixote to hallucinate Castilian windmills as giants drove the conquistadors to imagine the Aztec and Inca empires as mythical realms—and emboldened their assault on them. Don Quixote may only be a character in a book, but the delusional zealotry that came to be linked with his name were essential in facilitating the actual enslavement of the New World; likewise, the precious metals mined and plundered from the Spanish Empire in America provided critical injections of liquidity to a capitalist world-system that might otherwise have perished from its fledgling agonies. The spirit of Don Quixote did more than inaugurate the realist novel; it laid the foundations, at the most material level imaginable, for reality itself.
The modern character of literature and the historical character of modernity reveal themselves through one another. To state this is not to infringe on art’s inviolable autonomy, but to confirm that autonomy, expanding the reach of literature that it might grapple fairly with the world at large. No stated ideal ever lines up with reality, and the inner voice can find no lasting harmony with the roar of others. Novels are written to challenge a contemporary audience first, not in pursuit of timeless posterity. Yet if the ideologically engaged literature of the past still rings true today, it is because the distance between splenetic existence and essential ideals has altered less than one imagines.
The significance of The Idiot, as of Batuman’s writing in general, is not literary so much as literary-theoretical: it throws these issues into sharp relief by imposing upon the reader a paralytic attentiveness antithetical to narrative and development, let alone drama. It is an ideological novel composed under the assumption that reading and writing, in and of themselves, might substitute for x. Despite her towering disdain for program fiction, Batuman appears to have reiterated its central principle on her own initiative. This accounts for why the difference between The Idiot and the median MFA novel feels like one of degree, not kind: though Batuman is immeasurably more amusing in tone and more cosmopolitan in setting, the same parochial suspicion of belief systems strong enough to grapple with America’s intrinsic egoism lingers over both.
It’s a curious outcome given Batuman’s perceptive investigations of the strange appeal of doctrine. Like The Possessed, The Idiot’s title alludes to Dostoevsky, the ultimate ideological novelist; as in The Possessed, the narrator is attracted to a handsome Eastern European ideologue with an affinity for Dostoevsky. It’s telling that both Ivan’s and Selin’s characters come most clearly into focus in an argument over Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment; telling, too, that such a revealing dialogue never recurs. Unlike its predecessor, whose essays tracked a series of fanatics in a spirit of bemused camaraderie, The Idiot enacts nothing so much as the exclusion of ideology. Somewhat like Napoleon invading Russia in War and Peace, Ivan’s challenge to Selin’s monad-like existence is patiently, tediously and successfully frozen out. Could it have been otherwise? It could. But Batuman’s novel is handcuffed to the actual, its readers condemned to a Sisyphean recycling of the author’s intellectual confusions and emotional frustrations; so long as the writer’s biography, as opposed to the horizons of collective belief of the writer’s era, remain the novel’s primary frame of reference, it can’t.
To be fair, the horizons of collective belief were particularly unpromising for Batuman and her generation, who came of age and made careers during a period where it was easy to conclude that there was nothing bigger than the self left to believe in. The Cold War’s end coincided with a prolonged devaluation of ideological content. Libertarian logic colonized the cultural sphere. Torrents of on-demand data eroded any vision of the longue durée. As far as government went, expert-guided liberal democracy was the order for the foreseeable future; having taken care of communism, it seemed more than capable of taking care of itself. In literature as in much else, the tenor of the Nineties was set by the New Republic, where James Wood’s reviews of classic novels consistently dampened their ideological charge even as his reviews of contemporary fiction condemned deviation from a pinched conception of realism.
Wood’s influence was hardly decisive, but given that a similar hostility to ideology in narrative had dominated program fiction since its CIA-funded genesis in the postwar years, there seemed as little alternative to literary fiction sealed purely within the personal and empirical as there was to the flat world dictated by the empire of free markets. In such a self-defined environment, it was no surprise that the era’s modes of entertainment should correspond to its novelistic subgenres: the tourism of historical and overseas fiction, the animated films of magical realism. (The marijuana of standard-issue MFA realism—all forgettable inaction and enhanced tactile sensation.) Autofiction, a sort of aesthetic edition of careerism, was the logical endpoint of realism’s exclusive valorization of individual experience: once all other recreations expose their artifice and exhaust their charm, what is left except to chart one’s own advancement through a world as fixed as it is real?
The end of history, Fukuyama wrote, was not the end of historical events, but the end of ideological conflict. But once the end of history has been revoked, a renewal of the possibilities of ideology to enhance narrative should not be far behind. Reality under the Trump administration truly is hysterical, and any meaningful literary response to it should probably take into account how we—that nebula of left-leaning literary types to which Batuman and I and everyone who reviewed or cares about reviews of The Idiotbelong—put up with so many patently mediocre fictions for so long. This isn’t to suggest that novelists should dive headfirst into professions of socialist faith. Certain authors have already shown the limits of such an approach. It is not a question of advocating one belief or another, but of examining their implications through the vessel of dramatic narrative. It’s not to discount the existence of types of novels other than the ideological, nor to overlook the gifted fiction writers who already know how to fuel their narratives with zealous idiocy, self-centered or otherwise. Junot Díaz, Tao Lin, Adelle Waldman, Alexandra Kleeman and Paul Beatty have all demonstrated how foolish true believers can push novels forward onto territory that blatant author surrogates, burdened by intelligent inaction, could never reach.
These are unsettling times. Tensions and pressures formerly pacified by the prospect of endless growth now draw force from a state of permanent stagnation. Established institutions tremble with the resentful energies of dishonored promises; each crisis barely averted sows the seeds for more inevitable confrontation. Yet if literary history is any indication, an era of collapsing order offers fertile ground for novelists. Shaken by events out of inertia and conformity, they waken to a world teeming with open inquiries and untested solutions; whether facing the window, the mirror or the other, certainties dissolve. The pressing question is no longer how to fit in with the given, but how much must be changed. The temptation to wager one’s existence on an unrealized social ideal grows ever more alluring. So, too, grows the inclination to review one’s ideals and imagine their implications writ large. The unique quality of the novel catalyzed by ideology is its range, its capacity to simultaneously circumscribe the horizons of belief, exercise the full freedom to maneuver in society, and gauge its potential to foster individual maturity. It’s the best, if not the only, instrument left to us to understand what we are becoming.
“With an integrity that cannot be too highly praised,” Dostoevsky biographer and intellectual historian Joseph Frank concludes his chapter on The Idiot, “Dostoevsky thus fearlessly submits his own most hallowed convictions to the same test that he had used for the Nihilists—the test of what they would mean for human life if taken seriously and literally, and lived out to their full extent as guides to conduct.” It bears mentioning that the age of Dostoevsky was not an age of brilliant thinkers. The intellectual situation of Petersburg in the 1860s was jammed with third- and fourth-rate seminary dropouts butchering their recitations of second-rate Europeans. Given that the ideological matrix now is no more dismal than in the past; given that the universities, then as now, are turning out a new caste of intellectuals who, indebted and underemployed, have ample cause to rally around visions of a better world; and especially given that literate people today have access to 150 extra years of literary history beginning with Dostoevsky’s novels—given all this, is it really so inconceivable that some millennial author might arrive, like Dostoevsky, at a novel equal in magnitude to the disaster that helped give it form? And in the meantime, why shouldn’t the highly privileged writers of Batuman’s generation be able to afford the most basic, most essential luxury the novel can offer, that of critiquing their own articles of faith? Look closely and you’ll see: the only thing holding them back is their selves.
Art credit: Dario Maglionico, “Reification”