My Writers — Elif Batuman

the idiot

When considering which books to add to my household’s library, I am blessed with neither unlimited resources nor an abundance of time with which to read. There are already stacks upon stacks of bound wonders strewn about the domicile, waiting patiently for their turn in the rotation. No matter how many raves I may encounter about a particular new title, I can be exceedingly reluctant to engage in the commerce necessary make an acquisition. And thus The Idiot, the 2017 debut novel of Elif Batuman, long remained on the unofficial list of books to keep in mind along with all the other maybe-somedays.

Batuman and her book must have somehow elbowed their way to the forefront of the clamorous crowd in coveted pop culture artifacts in my brain, because when I came upon the New Yorker article she penned about the odd rent-a-family industry in Japan, I immediately recognized the byline. Upon publication, the article made the rounds on social media, devotees of exceptional longform magazine writing competing to see who could praise it most effusively. They were correct to do. It’s a marvelous piece of feature journalism, properly flabbergasted by the strangeness of the subject and yet deeply empathetic, striving successfully to understand the people operating within and around this subculture. A wry humor is present, but not pushed, and it is never deployed at the expense of anyone enduring emotional struggle.

Not long after reading the article, I plucked The Idiot off of the display table in a bookstore and read the first page, which uses the foreignness of email and foundational online technology to establish the story’s timeframe as the mid-nineteen-nineties, the lead character entering into college. Before the end of the first paragraph, the precise and perfect details employed by Batuman were present:

“You’ll be so fancy,” said my mother’s sister, who had married a computer scientist, “sending your e, mails.” She emphasized the “e” and paused before the “mail.”

By the end of the page, I knew I was buying the book, the deal clinched by the protagonist’s response to being handed an Ethernet cable for the first time: “What do we do with this, hang ourselves?” It was writing that I adored to such a degree that I felt a sense of loss for my delay in discovering it. So many wasted seconds when I could have reading these amazing words, assembled with offhand psychological astuteness and a pinpoint comic timing that is monumentally difficult to achieve in the novel form.

Greedily, I want all of Batuman’s words, every last one I can get. There’s a reasonable backlog for me to sort through, and hopefully many more to come in the long transit from the writer’s mind to the reader’s eyes. I missed out before. I won’t again.

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