Jonathan Cape $32.99 pb, 432 pp, 9781910702703
Email is a chimeric beast, an uneasy mix of intimacy and distance – unlimited time and space to say precisely what we mean, coupled with the unnerving promise of instant delivery. When it first arrived, email seemed to invite a new kind of writing – deliberate, earnest, vulnerable. We tried to sound smarter and wittier than we were, and it showed. The Idiot, Elif Batuman’s début novel, inhabits those gloriously pretentious early days, before email became a burden, when we used it to craft elaborate musings and manifestos, and to disguise our love letters as musings and manifestos.
The eponymous twit of The Idiot is Selin Karadağ, a New Jersey-born daughter of Turkish immigrants, who dreams of becoming a writer, or rather, believes that she is already a writer, a conviction ‘completely independent of my having ever written anything, or being able to imagine ever writing anything, that I thought anyone would like to read’. When Selin arrives at Harvard in 1995, an email address is waiting for her, with all of its shiny possibilities and pitfalls. Always there, unchanged, in a configuration nobody else could see, was a glowing list of messages from all the people you knew, and from people you didn’t know, like the universal handwriting of thought or of the world ... And each message contained the one that had come before, so your own words came back to you. All the words you threw out, they came back.’