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Healing Heartbreak with Elif Batuman’s The Idiot

The Idiot by Elif Batuman laying on a tan sweater

By Rachel A.G. Gilman

When I started reading Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, one of my best friends asked why I was being such a masochist.

It was the end of summer 2020, which had started out for me the way it did for most recent graduates: not well. I was cooped up in my childhood bedroom ninety miles north of my Manhattan apartment, surrounded by high school art show awards, stuffed animals, and a newly inked MFA, keeping at least twice as many job application tabs open in Chrome as unemployment checks I had cashed. I was desperately doing anything to help me not feel like a total failure.

Then, one slightly intoxicated evening in June, I decided I needed to bring a different kind of chaos into my life and downloaded a dating app.

At first the app served only as a great source of entertainment. Guys sent me messages about how they were getting into pickling or trying to write a novel (under “Job” I had written the name of the last publishing house where I had interned, which they mistook as their key to Kerouac-level success), and I responded with quippy comments that quickly ended the conversations. Harmless, low-stakes fun.

Then came Michael. Most men just hahaha-ed or lmao-ed my responses to the app’s prompts, how I claimed to be looking for “someone who is driven, reliable, comforting, and embodies most other characteristics of a quality pre-owned car.” But Michael poetically replied, I won’t give up even as my engine starts to clank and crunk.

I’m a sucker for alliteration and slant rhyme. I told him that I still wanted to see the Carfax report, but I was intrigued by his commitment to the bit.

I think that’s what would print on the top of my Carfax fact sheet, he replied. “He isn’t afraid to commit, nay, overcommit to the bit.”

What followed was a sixty-nine-day and 242,000-word texting affair between us. I soon learned Michael was a writer, too; a poet who’d gone through my same MFA program two years prior but had fallen back on his undergrad math degree, now working in the Asian financial markets. Really, though, he fancied himself an artist. We filled our digital space with wordplay and playlists, daydreams in between day jobs; weird and whimsical and wonderful feelings unlike anything I had ever had before. Some mornings texting him back was the entire reason I got out of bed.

When we finally decided to culminate our communications in person, the result was an eight-hour exhaustive and sangria-swallowed first date, complete with a public makeout finale. For the first time in forever, I felt alive . . .

. . . until the morning after the date, when Michael texted me one last time to say we didn’t quite “match up” to his fantasies; that he was really sorry; that he didn’t know to explain it but it just didn’t make sense to see each other again. I already had a hangover. Now, I had the additional familiar full-body discomfort of heartbreak.

I wallowed in the sensation, no job or classes for distraction. The only thing I had to do was write a weekly book review column where I had been working my way through titles I’d owned yet not touched and was relaying the experience via an online literary journal. Most of these books were happy-go-lucky romances, the last thing I needed when I wanted to linger in pain. Growling at myself for never being interested in horror or history, I dug deeper in the stacks.

My finger then ran over a glossy, light pink paperback edition of The Idiot. I pulled it free from my bookshelf and thumbed the rock embossed on the front while reading the description: a first-generation Turkish immigrant navigates her first year at Harvard in 1995 and enters into an email exchange with an older mathematics student. My eyebrows raised.

I Googled the title and found its Goodreads page. The top question was someone inquiring as to whether or not it was a romance. The top response?

I think if you read this looking for romance, you’re going to be disappointed.

Immediately I was on board.

After meeting Ivan in her Russian language class, Selin receives an email from him about a story they’ve been assigned. She replies, and soon a string of flowery, overwhelming messages begins to bloom, alongside a connection stemming out of a shared interest in the malleability of language and the unique pleasure of finding an intellectual challenger in one another, someone who for the first time stops you from feeling bored.

The whole thing instantly reminded me of my first exchanges with Michael: his intrigue in my Briticisms and tight metaphors for everyday experience, my delight in his occasional inventing of a word or two. Similarly, I understood how the sense of intimacy and remoteness of the exchanges made Selin dizzy as I often got so lost in Michael’s playful texts that I forgot what we had been talking about to begin with.

Soon, almost all of The Idiot started to feel like a mini support group for the digitally romanced. I nodded my head as Selin described the shade of anxiety she wore while waiting whatever was considered an appropriately casual amount of time before replying to Ivan’s emails, having experienced myself the first rush of excitement that quakes through a body when a message appears, followed by the aftershocks of rereading it. I sympathized with her brain feeling split in two, as though she had one life that involved emailing Ivan and another that was entirely separate where she found herself missing someone she hardly knew. And I definitely had the same sensation when thinking about Michael as she did Ivan in the shower, a tensing between my legs around something not there that I desperately wanted to be. I got so involved in the parallel that sometimes I even imagined all of us at a dinner party together, Ivan teasing Michael in the corner over beer about how he felt poets were liars obsessed with cereal—people who “try to hammer the atom back to Fruit Loops, life back to paradise, and love back to nonexistent simplicity”—as Selin and I nursed mixed cocktails and bemoaned giving into our fates of becoming writers.

Although Ivan and Selin felt that talking in person might trivialize their communication (Ivan, in fact, outwardly states that he gets more out of her in the messages than he ever could in real life), they do go on one sort of date, where like me and Michael they drink far too much and grow awkward. “In his physical presence, it was impossible to believe that he had written me those emails,” Selin says of the experience, which was precisely how I felt sitting beside Michael. Months with thousands of missives passed between us, yet in person there seemed to be nothing to say.

However, as much as these moments stressed us out, neither Selin nor I wanted them to end.

The most prominent relationship difference I found in our stories was Selin got many extra months with Ivan, opportunities to feel a buzz over watching him pull a wallet out of his jeans or to rub a hand against the fabric of his shirt. I did not with Michael, but I got to actually kiss him, so it’s up for debate who was dealt the better hand.

The aftermath, though, of these men’s departures from our lives was equally terrible, as were our inabilities to explain the situation. My friends and Selin’s were all confused by our communications, of our certainty that there was something meaningful across all the bubbles of black and white and gray virtual text. Mine were particularly taken aback since I live in an era where the FaceTime and iMessage buttons live right next to each other on my phone. They remained such once it was over.

While Selin and I could hear where our stories stopped making sense, the longer we wallowed in pain, the less the concept of sense mattered to us. By this, our mothers were entirely bewildered.

“From what you’ve described, it sounds as if he barely exists at all,” Selin’s says of Ivan. “He’s just a voice from behind a computer. He isn’t operating on the level of a real person.” Both of our mothers argued, too, that because of this distance from actuality, we struggled to see the flaws in these men, that their always sort of being there through the messages covered up the fact that they were never actually there at all—“a noninterpersonal interpersonal relationship,” if you will, where we were left filling in all the blanks in a manner, which perhaps uniquely appealed to writers.

Still, it was difficult for either of us to accept this. We counted how many days had passed since last seeing Ivan and Michael, a whole “One week ago I ____” sort of thing. Selin kept rereading Ivan’s emails as I typed out and printed my texts from Michael, in search of some proof that these communications weren’t entirely one-sided. In this, we mostly found these men repeatedly highlighting the importance of our digital exchanges—Ivan going on about the tremendous value of the email letters as Michael compared our texting thread to Sisyphus having to push the boulder up the hill—but we didn’t really manage to find clarity. Instead, we both briefly lost our sense of self, forgetting what we even wanted to do before these relationships, together “falling off the end of the conveyer belt,” as Selin put it, thirty years apart.

“I couldn’t know how I was going to dispose of my body in the space and time, every minute of every day for the rest of my life,” she says in her grief. “I didn’t understand how he was okay with never seeing me again . . . More painful and incomprehensible still, he had, with no warning and for no reason I could see, taken back what he had said.”

I also could not shrug away my anger over Ivan’s leaving Selin alone in a strange part of Europe after their final goodbye to never speak to again, just as I could not stop being upset with Michael for leaving me on the corner of E 12th Street and Fifth Avenue, drunk with only a half-baked inkling of the budding transition of a relationship from its present into its past. Selin and I just couldn’t get over the caustic reactions to what had felt like such serious connections. We couldn’t get over anything.

That’s when we channeled the feelings into nasty emails. Selin called Ivan a movie director. I called Michael a narcissist. Neither one wrote us back.

Ultimately, coming out of her youthful, lust-filled fog (and nearing the end of the book), Selin concludes that Ivan didn’t actually want to get to know her. “He just wanted to guess and wonder and disappear.” It gives her just enough closure to begin moving on, to understand that she was being used for the benefit of someone else’s ego.

I was older, more stubborn, and certainly more prideful, so therefore not so easily changed. I had told Michael umpteen times that the more I revealed of my vulnerable, imperfect self in our messages, the more terrified I became of us never speaking again, but each time he negated the idea and said he wanted to know the bad and the good. When I specifically mentioned that I always wondered, too, at what point our whole thing might stop, Michael responded that wasn’t going to happen. One message even verbatim said: Lol at some point I hope you’ll internalize that I’m not going to just disappear. And then, of course, he did.

Eventually I got my life together with a new job and new dates and new brands of loneliness before—almost two summers later—finally finding love. Michael and Ivan fell into the back corner of a closet of my brain, up until recently, when I received an email telling me that The Idiot would be getting a sequel this spring: Either/Or, a follow-up to Selin in the year after Ivan; her own version of what I had just experienced.

Upon hearing this, I reread The Idiot and was fascinated to feel nothing at all in any of my old underlined passages with just one exception. The last words Selin and Ivan say to one another before uttering goodbye.

“It wasn’t ever really a conversation,” Selin admits, to which Ivan replies, “No, it was better.”

I remember wondering the first time I read the exchange if Michael would understand what the characters meant; if it was a more eloquent way of trying to articulate what he had texted me about us not quite matching up; if it would help him see what I thought we had already understood (being a bit older and perhaps a hair wiser than Selin and Ivan): that the language, time, and thought capacity that went into crafting written exchanges could never quite translate into the script of real life, so maybe it wasn’t worth comparing anyway?

On this read, though, I didn’t think about Michael, or Ivan. I just thought about Selin, getting innocently caught up in a messy moment on her way to adulthood, and hoped that in the follow-up she finds someone, like I have, who will have winding in-person conversations about everything and anything while holding her hand and, most importantly, only uses email in their relationship to confirm reservations for dinner.

Rachel A.G. Gilman’s work has been published in journals throughout the US, UK, and Australia. She is the creator/editor-in-chief of The Rational Creature, is a columnist for No Contact Mag, and was editor-in-chief of Columbia Journal, issue 58. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and an MSt from the University of Oxford. Currently, she’s living in New York, where she works in book publishing by day and on a novel by night.

Headshot of Rachel A.G. Gilman
Rachel A.G. Gilman

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