Elif Batuman is a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her essays for the magazine—plus Harper’s, n+1, and other publications—are at turns hilarious and brilliant, often a mixture of travelogue and memoir that rescues meaning from the seemingly mundane. Her first book, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, was a finalist for National Book Critics Circle Award. Now she’s turned to fiction, and with no less astonishing results, with her first novel The Idiot. Set at Harvard in the mid-1990s, it sheds novelistic convention and captures the essence of longing.
Excerpt from The Idiot
I didn’t know what email was until I got to college. I had heard of email, and knew that in some sense I would “have” it. “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 “mail.”
That summer, I heard email mentioned with increasing frequency. “Things are changing so fast,” my father said. “Today at work I surfed the World Wide Web. One second, I was in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One second later, I was in Anıtkabir.” Anıtkabir, Atatürk’s mausoleum, was located in Ankara. I had no idea what my father was talking about, but I knew there was no meaningful sense in which he had been “in” Ankara that day, so I didn’t really pay attention.
On the first day of college, I stood in line behind a folding table and eventually received an email address and temporary password. The “address” had my last name in it — Karadağ, but all lowercase, and without the Turkish ğ, which was silent. From an early age I had understood that a silent g was funny. “The g is silent,” I would say in a weary voice, and it was always hilarious. I didn’t understand how the email address was an address, or what it was short for. “What do we do with this, hang ourselves?” I asked, holding up the Ethernet cable.
“You plug it into the wall,” said the girl behind the table.