Originally posted on my Patreon account on May 25th, 2018.
I recently read The Idiot by Elif Batuman for a book club and became instantly captivated by the story.
The first person narrative is a semi-autobiographical account of Selin, a freshman at Harvard, and the unique way she navigates the world as a middle class child of Turkish immigrants. Selin has an introverted, sheltered perspective of life as she encounters the forceful personalities of friends and potential love-interests.
Selin spends the summer abroad, first with friends in Paris, and then in Hungary where she bounces between houses in a rural community while teaching English to the local children. Every thread of her story is entwined with her interest in and longing for Evan, a schoolmate who has just graduated and plans to move to California. Even with their will-they-won't-they narrative, throughout the story Selin comes across as the recipient, rather than the perpetrator, of action.
This book spoke to me like few contemporary novels do, perhaps because it reminded me so strikingly of my own life experiences. After graduating from Wesleyan College with a bachelor's in English Literature, I found myself adrift in a world reeling from the burst of the housing bubble and subsequent recession. I, too, looked abroad and in a spontaneous moment took off across the world to teach English to Taiwanese children.
Also like Selin, I'm an introvert. I could feel her internal tension as she struggled to establish boundaries with the people she was living with, boundaries that were summarily trampled as she was taken from this place to that without any sense of autonomy when all she wanted to do at night was call Evan or just sit in bed and read a book.
In Taiwan, I also struggled with autonomy despite essentially living on my own for the first time in my life. Though unlike Selin, a linguistics major, I have no gift for languages, and stumbled my way through the most basic Chinese imaginable during the two years I lived overseas.
Every moment I spent outside of my cinder block apartment, I was watched and commented on. Children screamed "white girl, white girl!" whenever I passed them in the street (that's one Chinese phrase I know very well), while aunties on the bus would sit beside me and stare from inches away. The only moments I had to myself while outside were when I somehow escaped the crowds and went on long walks along deserted paths, often along nature trails or by the ocean.
Selin's experiences in Hungary, where everyone wants her attention on their own terms, resonates deeply within me. The only moments of peace she seems to have as well are when she's in nature, though there is always a sense of foreboding, of waiting for someone or something to happen. Whether it's for Evan to return to fetch her and their canoe, or while she's wandering the beach in search of the fellow camp counselors she's supposed to find.
We can only exist momentarily removed from society before Evan returns or another child calls out our alien existence.
Random Aside: During the book club a male/female couple near our group, who seemed to be having a first date, were talking and all of the sudden the man said, loudly enough to be heard over our babbling, "I once killed a man in a bar fight." Only myself and one other person in the group heard him and we made significant eye contact. I'm no expert, but that's not necessarily the kind of confession you want to start a relationship with...though would you rather know that up front, later, or not at all?