Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Mushrooms and Idiots

I managed almost exactly 7 hours of reading on Saturday for the 24 in 48 readathon. Sunday Dunk and I went for our annual day out to New Mills in Derbyshire, a mere half an hour on the train, to take a little stroll along the Goyt Way. The girls went to the coast with some friends and played on the beach, so a good time was had by all. This morning I checked on the avocado tree and found the pot now has its own little ecosystem.

'The Idiot' by Elif Batuman is my number four from the Women's Prize for Fiction shortlist (though I have not read the winner yet) and also a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Fiction prize. 'Sprawling' is what Miranda July called it on the front cover, and I think that would be my reaction too. It follows the freshman college experience of Selin as she struggles to make friends and find out what she thinks about life, the universe and everything. There is a wonderful cast of characters who all seem to have themselves much more 'together' making Selin feel that she must be doing something wrong. She drifts between classes, seeking something that will tell her the true direction her life should take. Although written in past tense it has a very immediate feel to it, as if she is relating stuff that only just happened, with lots of extraneous and trifling details about what people (and Selin herself) wore and ate and said, but this has the effect of making you feel intimately involved in their lives. All of the characters are either learning languages, or not native english speakers, and much of the discussion revolves around national and linguistic identity, and also interesting conversations about language use and how it differs and how words are shared between cultures. Selin is rather sweet and naive and often takes things too much at face value:

"In philosophy class, we talked about the problems we would have on Mars - the language problems. Supposing we went to Mars and the Martians said 'gavagai' every time a rabbit ran by; we would have no way of knowing whether 'gavagai' referred to rabbits, to running, or to a kind of fly that lived in rabbit's ears. I found this incredibly depressing - both the obstacles to understanding and the rabbits with flies in their ears." (p.125-6)

"At some point in our conversation, Ivan mentioned that strawberries grew on trees. I said I thought they grew on little plants close to the ground. No, he said - trees.
'Okay,' I said. I knew that in my life I had seen strawberries growing, on plants, but this didn't seem like irrefutable proof that they didn't grow on trees.
'You're easy to convince,' he said.
We walked for three hours. On the way back we got lost and had to climb down a steep hill. I really didn't want to climb down the hill. I actually walked into a tree and then stayed there for a minute.
'What are you doing?' Ivan asked.
'I don't know,' I said.
He nodded. He said that there were lots of possible ways down the hill, but probably the best way was one where you didn't have to go through a tree. Then he started talking about the execution of Ceausescu and his wife." (p.161)

At the same time she can also be quite astute. She sums up nicely a conversation Monkey and I have had on several occasions about the consumption of alcohol. I find this does not just apply to college students but in my own experience with work colleagues, people thinking that if you don't drink on a regular basis it is for some kind of principle like being a vegetarian:

"This obsession with drinking was one of the things that had most surprised me abut college. I had always looked down on alcohol, both my parents liked to drink at dinner and it always made them more annoying. I had known that alcohol was supposed to be a big part of college life and that some people would really care about it, but I hadn't realised it would be basically everyone, except the most humourless or childish people, and also some people who were religious. There didn't seem to be any way of not drinking without it being a statement." (p.174)

Somewhat in pursuant of Ivan, her elusive, email love interest, she takes herself off to teach English in Hungary for the summer, an experience that seems to serve to leave her more confused about the whole life and universe thing. I liked Selin immensely and the book is very witty and perceptive; that while it sometimes tries to argue that language and culture dictate identity equally people's experience of their struggle with identity is universal and something we share across national boundaries.

"I read a book of fables and read two fables about harts. They both ended badly. In 'The Hart in the Ox-Stall', the hart hid from the hunter in an ox-stall. The hunter noticed its antlers sticking out of the straw and killed it, proving that 'nothing escapes the master's eye.' In 'The Hart and the Hunter', the hart deplored its legs for being less handsome than its antlers. Later, when it was running from a hunter on its legs, its antlers got tangled in a tree and it got killed. The moral was: 'We often despise that which is most useful to us.' In general, the hart's biggest problem was antlers. Or no, it wasn't antlers at all, it was hunters." (p.189)

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