When we were freshmen in college, Jill gave me a book of cartoons for Christmas called I Went to College… and it Was Okay. I looked for the book before I started writing this review, and I couldn’t find it. It may have disappeared in one of my many moves over the last 22 years. I did discover that you can buy a used copy on Amazon for $1.99, however.
At the time I thought this book perfectly captured the feeling of being an 18 year-old college freshman. For academically-oriented kids, college is the culmination of everything they have worked for in their lives – so why do they spend so much time staring off into space in libraries and walking to gas stations in the middle of the night to buy bad coffee? I wondered it then and I wonder it now.
Around the same time Jill bought me that book, Elif Batuman (and Selin, the protagonist of her novel, whom I assume to be Batuman’s alter ego) was filling out her own college applications. Batuman is a year younger than I am, and she enrolled at Harvard a year after I enrolled at Dartmouth. While different in its particulars, this novel perfectly captures my own experience as a college freshman.
To begin with, there’s email. At Dartmouth, we were issued Mac Quadras out of a big white truck and told to plug the Ethernet cables into our printer ports. Because so many students forgot this counterintuitive instruction and tied up the technology help line, the college pre-programmed each computer with a screen saver showing a picture of Dartmouth Hall with the words “Put it in the printer port!” I forgot the instructions anyway. I called the technology help line.
Within seconds of putting the cable in the printer port, we were online. We were told that Dartmouth was, at the time, the second most fully wired campus in the nation after the Naval Academy. I remember a website that was just a hamster running in a wheel. I remember porn about the Smurfs. I remember a kid saying in a comical tone in class that he had looked up an allusion in “the DCIS* Online Bible,” and we all laughed, students and professor, at the silliness of this. And I remember my dorm-mate Simon and his rubber chicken, Keith, whom I’ve written about on his site before.
*Dartmouth College Information Services, I think.
Batuman’s novel begins like this: “I didn’t know what email was until I got to college. I had heard of email, and I 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 the ‘mail’” (3). The quotation marks around “have” are the best part.
Batuman’s protagonist, Selin, maintains this distant, almost anthropological approach to narrating her freshman year of college. The novel’s second page – which continues to contemplate email – could almost be written by a researcher from a distant land: “There was another world. You could access it from certain computers, which were scattered throughout the ordinary landscape, and looked no different from regular computers. 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, all in the same letters, 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. It was like the story of your relations with others, the story of the intersection of your life with other lives, was constantly being recorded and updated, and you could check it at any time” (4).
The intersection of Selin’s life with other lives begins in her Russian class, where she meets Svetlana, a self-possessed Yugoslav who becomes her best friend, and Ivan from Hungary, who becomes her love interest. Selin meets both of them during a dispute about choosing Russian names – in other words, about assuming an alternate identity, which is what one’s freshman year in college is all about, really. First as Sonya, her Russian-class alter ego, and later as herself, Selin begins an ongoing email flirtation with Ivan, an exchange that includes passages like “Things just aren’t that easy in real life. You can’t just tell an ache, ‘Go back into the rock.’ Moreover, I think ‘peace’ is misleading. It can’t possibly be the same thing as cereal” (148). As baffling as that is, Ivan – a baffling dude in his own right – picks right up where she left off: “Your atom, I think it will never go back to peace, to cereal or rocks or anything like that. Once it has been seduced there is no way back, the way is always ahead, and it is so much harder after the passage from innocence. But it does not work to pretend to be innocent anymore. That seduced atom has energies that seduce people, and these rarely get lost” (149). These passages make a little more sense in context, but not much.
I enjoyed the whole novel, but my favorite passages come from Selin’s first encounters with college-level liberal arts classes. Entire sections are written in a tone just like the “Findings” section on the back page of Harpers (here’s a sample if you’re not familiar with it). Selin’s weirdest class is “Constructed Worlds,” in which, says Selin, “we went to the Museum of Natural History, where we saw a brace of pheasants that had belonged to George Washington, a turtle collected by Thoreau, and ‘about a million ants,’ described as ‘E.O. Wilson’s favorites.’ I was impressed that E.O. Wilson had been able to identify, in this world of seemingly infinite ants, his one million favorites. We saw what was believed to be the largest skull of a living crocodile species in any collection. When they cut open the crocodile’s stomach, they found a horse and 150 pounds of rocks” (25). Elsewhere, Batuman’s prose style mimics DeLillo’s: “From the top of the escalator, all of Filene’s was spread out below you, like some historical tapestry. Then you were in it. As far as the eye could see, shoppers were fighting over cashmere sweater sets, infants’ party dresses, and pleated chinos, with a primal hostility that seemed to threaten the very bourgeois values embodied by those garments. A heap of thermal long underwear resembled a pile of souls torn from their bodies. Women were clawing through the piled souls, periodically holding one up in the air so it hung there all limp and abandoned” (52). And when Selin is assigned in linguistics class to interview native English speakers from different regions about the words ‘dinner’ and ‘supper,’ her two roommates, Angela and Hannah, square off: “[They] got into an argument about which was more formal, Thanksgiving dinner or the Last Supper. They debated the difference between supper and a snack. Hannah said it depended on whether the food was hot or cold” (31). This is what I remember about college – or about freshman year of college, anyway – the endless arguments about nothing. They were never fun, but everyone else seemed to be having fun, so you just sat there, thinking about how much you hated your clothes.
This has been point-and-grunt literary criticism at its best, I know, but when I read a novel that I really love, I don’t want to write about it. I want to show you the parts I loved best. I haven’t done this novel justice and hope you’ll consider reading it if you enjoy novels that combine a disconnected narrative voice, satire of late-20th-century academia, a wacky cast of characters, and brilliant, ironic prose – or even if you don’t but suspect that you might be persuaded. Also, I hope this novel wins the Pulitzer. That is all.