The Idiot conveys an impression, built without any context at all, of our world in a certain time and a certain place. Naturally, this perspective paints most everything as bizarre. The protagonist, a young girl called Selin, is in her first year at Harvard. She at first seems sheltered, but her naivety is soon shown to be so extreme that it quickly loses the sheen of innocence and begins to suggest some sort of maladjustment. For example, she wonders why everyone in college drinks and why they drink so much. Now, if you step back far enough, this is an activity that might not make much “sense,” but, of course, there are reasons for this behavior, such as a desire to develop a separate self and to ease the anxiety of social interaction, but Selin never acquires such anthropological knowledge from her encounters. It is consistently funny to watch her confront human behavior de novo but unsatisfying that we don’t see her cultivate these experiences into personal growth. This “alien dropped to Earth” conceit is one that Batuman employs effectively but, even when done well, it grows tiresome long before the book’s halfway point. It’s a fine trick, but it’s the only one Batuman has up her sleeve in The Idiot.
The most disappointing thing about The Idiot is that this book is the one Batuman chose to deliver for her first novel. Her previous effort, a literary memoir called The Possessed, displayed an insight and wit that suggested she was capable of fine writing exploiting keen observation. In light of that admirable work, The Idiot feels tossed off. Readers should expect more than a gimmicky one-trick pony from someone with so much erudition and skill. Let’s hope that if we see another book from Batuman, whatever genre it falls into, that’s what we get.