A riddle: a woman and a man get to know one another in the 21st century. They flirt, go on long walks, exchange poetic emails, and stay up all night in his apartment. This goes on for months. But they never so much as kiss. Why?
It’s a state of affairs that makes us suspicious. At a time when sex is the starting point rather than the goal of most romantic relationships, we don’t have a rich phrasebook for understanding why two seemingly interested people fail at step one. Our explanations tend to be base: one of the two must be ugly, or in the closet, or unfashionably religious, or simply not interested in sex. If they wanted to, we reassure ourselves, they would.
Elif Batuman is skeptical of these reassurances. Her first novel, The Idiot, is a love story about two people who can’t bring themselves to kiss. The book has been praised for its humor, style, and linguistic observations, less so for what it has to say about the problem of sex. The few reviews that have mentioned sex at all have largely complained about its absence. But it’s precisely that absence that animates The Idiot and allows Batuman to present a more nuanced answer to the riddle: two people might fail to sleep together because they either can’t or won’t negotiate the power dynamic that physical intimacy inevitably requires.
Selin Karadağ, the novel’s narrator, is a newly arrived freshman at Harvard in the early days of electronic mail, a teenager who’s spent more time wondering on what day she’ll die than to whom she’ll lose her virginity. She’s cynically funny, with a keen eye for the absurd, but also possessed of an unsentimental idealism: she isn’t afraid to say she wants “a life unmarred by laziness, cowardice, and conformity.” She’s drawn to these sorts of confident, precise expressions, finding an almost existential comfort in the descriptive capacity of language, and feeling unmoored whenever she’s at a loss for words.
In her introductory Russian course she meets Ivan. He’s a senior, a looming Hungarian mathematician with the rarified aura that mathematicians have for laypeople. Selin’s interest grows as she watches him move through space, as she hears him speak, and as they find themselves cast as dialogue partners performing “Nina in Siberia,” a bizarre, elliptical love story made for teaching Russian grammar. One day, after overhearing his last name, she finds his email and writes him an impulsive letter, a playful sequel to their Nina dialogue, the sort of note that demands either an earnest reply or none at all. Ivan replies.
Their relationship graduates from email to long walks around Cambridge and finally to sitting up all night in his apartment, talking about nothing. They lurch through cycles of heartbreak and reconciliation. Ivan disappears, Selin writes to him that she’s in love with him, Ivan writes her that she’s the most special person he knows, Ivan mentions a girlfriend who quickly becomes an ex-girlfriend, Selin calls him the worst insult she can think of, Ivan takes her to Walden on his motorcycle, etc.
Like all young lovers, they struggle with voicing their expectations and feelings to each other but, at least to herself, Selin is able to articulate a clear idea of what constitutes true love. At one point, discussing Ivan with a therapist, she says: “Most people, the minute they met you, were sizing you up for some competition for resources…They’re always separating people into two groups, allies and dispensable people.” Ivan, she says, no matter how complicated he is, genuinely seems to care more about understanding her than about figuring out if she’s dispensable. This, to her, means he loves her.
Nothing very tangible comes out of this love. The summer after her freshman year, Selin travels to Hungary as a volunteer English teacher, largely because Ivan will be there, and the cycle repeats. In the end they have a climactic heart-to-heart that resolves nothing, and he leaves for Stanford to begin his PhD. It’s unlikely they’ll see each other again.
In what amounts to almost a year of knowing each other, the closest they come to physical intimacy is when he playfully touches her ear.
Reviewers have found this fact — by far the most unusual fact about the story — hard to account for. Some have dismissed it as an unfortunate flaw, or else, by glossing over it, implied that if sex is lacking it’s because sex isn’t what the book is about. Others have blamed the characters: either Selin is too much of a brain for physical intimacy (obviously contradicted by the text) or Ivan is, variously, not into her, emotionally unavailable, or a bad boy whose advances Selin wisely rejects. We don’t have access to Ivan’s thoughts, and there’s plenty of evidence for a cynical reading of his character, but these explanations feel forced. He never makes a move on her. He always calls her first (when they agree once that she’ll call first, he later admits he couldn’t focus on his work, so wrapped up was he in waiting). He’s not a paragon of vulnerability, but he’s available in ways that matter to Selin: “All I had to do was write him an email, and then he walked around with me all day long. Who else in the world would do that?”
Still, they don’t manage to move beyond walking. Once in a while Ivan makes superficially enigmatic statements about how much “easier things would be” if they were intoxicated:
[Ivan said,] “I’m not saying we have to get hammered…You just bypass the suffering…Something breaks down. I don’t know what to call it — those blocks, that obstruct a connection in your mind.”
“Inhibitions,” I said.
“Yes, exactly,” he said. I felt my face flush. “I don’t mean,” he added, “that you never talk about sex, and then you get drunk and suddenly you can talk about sex.”
“Right,” I said.
Time passed. I was thinking about how much time we had, and how little, at the same time. At some point, Ivan ask if I liked doughnuts.
If your sexual initiation didn’t take place in a John Irving novel, perhaps this scene is familiar. You sit around with your love interest, talking in suggestive generalities, trying to bait them into making the first move. We usually call this shyness, a little-respected emotion, because we think of it as the fear of committing to an action that we’re sure is totally fine and normal. We tell shy people: “Get on with it!”
This seems to be the frustration that many reviewers circle around. But I don’t think Selin’s inhibitions are mere shyness. She seems, at least in those moments, certain of Ivan’s interest. What she unconsciously fears, I believe, is that introducing the demands of physical desire into their relationship would compromise the notion of love that she has articulated, according to which Ivan loves her because he lets no worldly concerns get in the way of trying to understand her.
One of two books that Selin reads in Hungary is Thomas Mann’s 1924 bildungsroman The Magic Mountain. The book’s protagonist, Hans Castorp, is a kind of proto-millennial: he visits his cousin in a sanatorium and ends up staying there for seven years, living off his trust fund, cultivating hobbies and becoming an unpaid DJ. Selin says she sympathizes with much in the book, especially how they always eat two breakfasts, but as I read The Idiot, I kept wondering what she thought about one of The Magic Mountain‘s more objectionable scenes.
Midway through the story, Castorp sleeps with a very ill Russian girl named Clavdia Chauchat, who he’s been making eyes at for 250 pages. She promptly leaves the sanatorium, and he waits for her, feigning illness. When she returns, however, it’s as the “traveling companion” of a Dutch colonialist, Pieter Peeperkorn, who, despite his advanced age, radiates a charisma that’s both Dionysian and Christ-like. Castorp is disappointed but, amiable as he is, he develops a friendship with the Dutchman.
At one point the pair spend a drunk morning theorizing about the nature of female desire. They arrive at the conclusion that it’s essentially passive: “Desire intoxicates the male,” Peeperkorn sums up. “The female demands and expects to be intoxicated by his desire.” Castorp is then able to confess his liaison with Chauchat, because, as he assures his friend, this liaison was entirely the result of his desire, and so shouldn’t reflect on the girl. The Dutchman more or less accepts this, saying, in short, if I were younger we might have to duel, but since I’m old, let’s make a bond of brotherhood instead. They drink to it.
Not exactly edifying reading, but it states shamelessly the algebra of desire that was assumed to be true for centuries and which, though it has largely passed from our discourse, still governs, often against our wills, sexual dynamics between men and women. In this algebra, desire is not fulfilled by a man learning what a woman wants. What she wants is obvious — she wants to be overwhelmed. The man’s challenge is to rise to the occasion, not to speak the right words but merely to speak, as loudly and shamelessly as he can.
Desire, then, is inseparable from power. What we desire is either to overpower or to be overpowered, and pleasure stems not from some combination of physical stimuli, not from being understood, but from how purely we’re able to play one of those two roles. And you don’t need to be a dyed in leather BDSMer or under-informed about consent to admit, with however heavy a heart, that this dynamic remains for many people an aspect of sexual pursuit and fulfillment, and that the concept of “intoxicating male desire” remains embedded in customs of who makes the first move, who pursues and who encourages pursuit, who emulates strength and who emulates weakness.
These notions of desire disquiet Selin, and not because she worries about consent. To the possibility that Ivan is trying to “push” her in “the scenario known to us both in which boys pushed girls,” she says that was “so obviously not what was going on.” Rather, it’s the thought that power might in any way have anything to do with love that makes her anxious. This is most apparent in moments when Selin feels unexpectedly hurt, because it’s almost always when Ivan suggests, even in a trivial way, that he’s aware of a power dynamic in their relationship. In one scene, he gives her a box of cookies to hold, and a dog that he’d been teasing with the cookies jumps on Selin, ruining her dress. Ivan jokes that he didn’t do it on purpose. “The sense of hurt,” she says, “took my breath away. It would never have occurred to me that he had done it on purpose.” In their climactic heart-to-heart, when Ivan admits one of his hurtful emails was “a power thing”, her breath catches in her throat: “It had never occurred to me that power was something he would actually use, on me of all people.”
For Selin, power seems inseparable from the competition for resources that she sees as antithetical to love. Power, she suspects, is always used for extraction. She sees it in The Beatles, whose “harmoniously innocent warbling” hides for her a “calculating cynical worldview” where they’re “keeping tally, resenting [their girl] for making them show her the way, waiting to be pleased in return.” As in most Beatles songs (except “Run For Your Life”), power and sex are not explicitly linked in The Idiot, but the hints are clear. After their first long night together, when he walks her home, she pre-empts any possibility of a kiss by leaving suddenly, and thinks she’s “won.” By extension, if she’d lingered, and shown that she expected something from him, he would have won, by giving her what she wanted, by showing her the way. It’s their first moment of sexual tension, and one of the few times she uses such explicit language about winning and losing.
Ivan is caught in a similar bind. On the one hand, as the more sexually experienced man, the aesthetics of his situation are less ugly, because in any power dynamic he would be the stronger, the “winner.” On the other hand, he can’t bring himself to make the first move, because if he genuinely loves her he doesn’t want to see her in a weaker position. The best he can do is hint at the sort of role he could play, and see how she reacts (not well). In Hungary they walk by a river and Ivan says that he wants to throw a stray dog into it. She asks why he’d want to do such a thing. He says rivers make him want to throw things into them, and jokes that he can’t throw her in. She knows this is “meant to sound playful,” but feels “insulted and humiliated.” Ivan reads her mood correctly: “I think you don’t like to throw the dog into the river.” I don’t think Ivan would throw a dog into a river, and I don’t think they’re talking about dogs.
As the story progresses there are hints that Selin might be, if not coming to terms with power dynamics, then at least becoming more aware of their pleasures. She starts enjoying The Beatles. Even as she’s ashamed of it, she admits how much she likes following Ivan’s instructions. The most revealing moment comes during their heart-to-heart. At one point he asks her about one of her letters, and Selin feels “a shock, like when he had mentioned power, but this time the feeling was intoxicating. I felt it, his power — but like he was going to use it delicately —
but not like he wasn’t going to use it.” Batuman is a crystalline stylist. Whenever her sentence constructions feel awkward, a character is trying to express something that language has trouble expressing. Here, Selin glimpses, however hazily, a power dynamic redeemed, and immediately undoes her hair clip, letting her hair down. But the hair covers her face, her self, and within the same sentence, she clips it back up again. They talk for a while longer, and make some important admissions, but in the end nothing they say bridges the physical distance between them, not even when Selin consents to Ivan killing a moth that’s buzzing around her room. He doesn’t kill it. With her help, he lets it out the window.
The next morning Selin ponders the prescience of Dr. Seuss: “We would not, could not, here or there. We would not, could not, anywhere.”
The sermonic version of The Idiot might conclude with this: if power compromises love, and sex involves power, then sex always compromises love. To be intoxicated by someone’s power is to allow your love for them to be compromised. True love will not save you: the truer the love the deeper the compromise.
I don’t think Selin sees a way out of this predicament. After her big talk with Ivan, she has a dream. She’s in a bathhouse, and Ivan walks in, except in the dream he’s also her brother. He is followed by a deluge of water. They hold one another. They say I love you. The water will drown them. Coldness and wetness, throughout the novel, are associated with death. If sex is a debasement of love, only one option remains to stay true to that love — confess it and die, chastely in the arms of your brother.
I found something admirable about Selin’s stubborn skepticism, perhaps because it’s grounded in her faith in language. She’s not skeptical of what she’s able to articulate, like her notion of love or her dislike of The Beatles. But when she arrives at something she can’t justify or explain, like why power dynamics must exist between two people in love, or why we drink so much, she refuses to go forward, no matter how much convention nudges at her back. She’ll believe in something, but not before it is made legible.
Her insistence on an explanation stands in contrast to two ways in which the rest of us make do with our compromises (three if you count alcohol). The first is by not talking about them. Many of us have internalized some vague idea that sex, whatever its myriad pleasures, is symbiotic with love, and that the two together represent the highest interpersonal fulfilment we can reasonably expect to achieve. When this assumption almost inevitably fails to hold, we think, well, desire is a strange thing that can’t be put into words anyway. This idea may seem obvious, because it’s so pervasive, but I think Selin would call it willful ignorance.
The second, more subtle way is by labelling the power dynamics involved in sexuality and seduction as “performative” and “arbitrary,” as if anything as basic as sex could ever be purely performative. Even if it were, it’s not obvious that what we perform on a regular basis doesn’t change us or how we’re perceived. If we perform weakness for our partner enough times, they may begin to believe we are weak, or dispensable, no matter how much they love us. It’s the fear of this, I think, that keeps many people from expressing their desires precisely to the partners they love most. How can you really ask someone, whom you love and respect as an equal, to put either you or themselves in a position of desirable weakness?
In the absence of physical intimacy, there’s a limit to how deeply The Idiot can explore these questions. Batuman has said that this novel is the first of a series, and I suspect she’ll go farther in its sequels (about one of which she said, “I want to write more about sex in this one; I think sex is a really big problem that people don’t acknowledge enough.”). Still, if The Idiot only describes the tip of the problem, it nonetheless points out both the problem and how much our language, so at ease with describing linguistic theory and croissants, struggles to articulate it. At the same time, Batuman presents this struggle not as the product of a fundamental rift between what can and can’t be articulated, but as a basic tension in our development as people. What Selin, in her grasping attempts to say how she feels about Ivan’s power, comes to understand is that we will always be pressing up against a reality that we cannot yet put into words. We will always, at the margins of our experience, be struggling with a new language.