Fever Dream
  • March 20, 2018


  • Samanta Schweblin

    4Fever Dream
    3The Idiot

    Elif Batuman

  • Judged by

    Jaya Saxena

The Idiot

In teaching myself tarot, I’ve been having a difficult time squaring myself with the relationship between two of the cards: the High Priestess and the Hierophant. They are archetypes, but it’s hard to ignore the gendered nature of what they represent. The Hierophant, typically depicted as a man, is the keeper of rigid spiritual knowledge, the authority of that realm, while the High Priestess represents spiritual subconsciousness, intuition, and mystery. If he is the Pope, she is the witch, and while I would prefer to be a witch, it bothers me that this is how the two cards that deal with similar themes of spiritual knowledge and intuition lay this out. Men are the keepers of the official history, to which they can turn whenever they need. Women get only the story of themselves, hoping that by telling it they can find an answer, or just the right question.

Jaya Saxena is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in GQ, ELLE, The Toast, The Daily Dot, the New Yorker, Catapult and more. She is the co-author of Basic Witches, and lives in Queens with her husband and two ungrateful cats. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “None.”

The books I was assigned, Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin and The Idiot by Elif Batuman, live in the world of the High Priestess. Their main characters, both women, are always in conversation with themselves, trying to access something hidden in another realm, knowing that everything is not as it seems. The men in their lives are fixed figures who watch, with compassion or condescension or both, as they figure themselves out, though the stakes could not be more different.

Fever Dream is a puzzle and a ticking time bomb and a horror story and an emotional gut punch. It’s laid out as a conversation between Amanda, who lays dying in a hospital, and her friend’s child David, who listens as she tells her story and guides her to the “important thing.” The novel, which at 183 pages I blew through in a day, is a quest for this “important thing.” What is it? Why didn’t Amanda see it before? Will finding it save her?

David acts as the authority on what is important in Amanda’s story and what is not, urging her with a man’s insistent power not to get distracted, as they’re running out of time, as if retelling the story can change it. But he’s still a child (a ghost child? a hallucination?) and Amanda senses there’s more than even he can see. Or maybe she knows telling her story is all she can do.

And I’m starting to think you’re not going to understand, that going forward with this story doesn’t make any sense.

But things keep happening. Carla parks beside the three poplar trees at her house, and there are many more details you’ll want to hear.

It’s not worth it anymore.

Yes it is worth it. Carla pushes the button on her seat belt and it whips back into place, and with that whipping noise, my perception of reality comes back clearly. Nina is sleeping in the backseat. She is pale, and even when I say her name a few times she doesn’t wake up. Now that her dress is completely dry I see the haloes of discolored fabric, huge and amorphous, like a big school of jellyfish.

Really, Amanda, there’s no point.

I have an intuition, I have to go on.

The mystery permeating the book is only amplified by the fact that it’s a work in translation; it was originally published in Spanish. As David and Amanda search for the important thing, I kept wondering what I might have been missing, or what’s been added to distract us. (I spent a decent amount of time wondering why they went with sitting “Indian style” over cross-legged.) Fever Dream, as psychedelic and unhinged as it is, deals in hard truths. It explores our desire to know things even if our fates are already sealed. Knowing the important thing won’t save you. I worry that I was taken in by a gimmick, that the unconventional structure and racing pace had me convinced this was something more than it was. Then again, once I put it down, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I spent days treating every interaction as if I had my own inner David. What is the important thing here? How do I trust my intuition? Does everyone see things the way I’m seeing them? For a few days at least, I viewed everything I thought about through the lens of Fever Dream.

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Where Fever Dream is a cloud of a story, The Idiot is intensely grounded. Taking place at Harvard University, and later Hungary, in 1995, it follows freshman Selin in the beloved pastime of every 18-year-old: trying to figure out who the fuck you are, trying to make yourself a person when you are still a blueprint of one. She does this the way most 18-year-olds have, by making fast friends who then implant themselves in her life, by traveling halfway around the world in the hope that something big and life-shattering will happen to her, and most naturally, by falling in love with a boy whose insufferability she mistakes for depth and intelligence.

That may sound unkind, but Selin’s relationship with Ivan, a 22-year-old she meets in Russian class and starts an esoteric email conversation with, is an uncomfortably realistic depiction of just the type of thing you do when you’re 18 and grasping for identity. With him and outside of him, Selin searches in every conversation, every interaction, for meaning and direction, even once going to far as to analyze the lyrics of club hit “Like the Deserts Miss the Rain”:

Why would a desert miss rain? Why wasn’t it okay for a desert to be a desert, why couldn’t anything just be what it was, why did it always have to be missing something?

Can you get any more “I’m a Harvard freshman desperately trying to be an intellectual person of the world” than that?

The problem with The Idiot is that it rarely, if ever, elevates Selin’s musings, and we are left with essentially the diary of a freshman experience instead of whatever it is novels do that make you feel like this is the only world you want to be in. While Selin’s concerns are incredibly accurate, they’re not exactly the type of thing you want to spend 423 pages revisiting if that’s all there is.

About two thirds through the book I put together (i.e., finally read the author bio and the blurbs on the back) that the story was nodding in style and form to the 19th-century Russian novel, perhaps to the Dostoyevsky novel of the same name. At one point, Ivan asks Selin about Dostoyevsky, who Selin says “makes me embarrassed and tired”:

He invents these supposedly complicated problems and then gets so worked up about them—like, it’s hell, it’s intolerable humiliation, it’s the mathematically highest point of abasement. But to me, none of those things seem particularly hellish or humiliating or complicated. When I can’t get myself worked up myself, I feel embarrassed. And tired.

Perhaps if I had read Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, or any Russian novel besides Crime and Punishment 10 years ago, I would have a deeper understanding of what Batuman’s The Idiot is doing. But I haven’t, so I don’t, and I don’t think an academic’s understanding of Russian literature should be a prerequisite to enjoying a novel. While there were times I softened to Selin’s plight, ultimately, I just couldn’t get worked up about anything she was going through. And every time I put it down, I promptly forgot about it.

I think I made a mistake. I read the more dynamic book first. This was purely by chance, obviously, but like all things seems arranged by fate in hindsight. I read it first because it was shorter, and I’m a slow reader, and I figured if I ran up against a deadline without having trained my brain to parse these sentences any faster then at least I will have read one-and-three-quarters of the books instead of one-and-a-pinch of the other, the former being enough to make some sort of judgment on. Because of that I read Fever Dream, the one that set me aflame and filled me with sparks, first. The Idiot suffered for being whatever I read after Fever Dream, but also perhaps from being a novel that looked to the past put up against a novel that looked to the future. One was rooted in (again, I think) a centuries-old structure, while the other fundamentally expanded my idea of what a novel can be. Even if The Idiot was flawless, how could it compare to that?


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Match Commentary

By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

Kevin Guilfoile: I don’t understand the tarot context Judge Saxena employed to frame these two novels—my superstition is specific to a fork in my cutlery drawer that I cannot throw away but can never, ever use. But I do like listening to people talk about things that fascinate them, even if the subject holds no fascination for me. I find the phrase “The High Priestess and the Hierophant” extremely pleasing, even if I don’t know what it means.

John Warner: I am interested in this notion Judge Saxena raises about these novels involving characters in “conversation with themselves.” This strikes me as a way to frame lots of novels, but perhaps there is a difference in expectation when it is a female character doing it versus a male character doing it.

I’ve got to think harder about all this, but I appreciate how Judge Saxena has me thinking about something I never would’ve considered.

Kevin: My experience with these novels was very similar to Judge Saxena’s. Fever Dream continues to have a difficult-to-describe hold over me. Weeks after I read it I’ll still conjure a scene from the story in my mind—nothing especially eventful, a person sitting in a car, say—just to get a second taste of the awesomely weird feeling I had when I was reading it.

I enjoyed The Idiot more than Judge Saxena did, but her description of it is nearly identical to the one I offered when you and I discussed the book in the play-in round. Our independent analyses of the text were almost identical, but I liked it and she didn’t. We agree on everything except what our guts are telling us. It’s further evidence of a theory we have advanced at the ToB many times: Our response to literature is an involuntary one and our “analysis” of a novel is often a rationalization for our feelings. When we say, “I liked this novel because the close third-person point of view allowed for keen and original insight into the mind of an 18th-century nomad,” what we really mean is “I liked this novel and oh my god I might have abandonment issues stemming from the time 30 years ago when I was told not to let the cat out and then watched it get taken by a falcon!” Our reasons for liking a novel don’t necessarily have anything to do with why we liked it, but it’s fascinating to work through them nevertheless.

The decision is sound. Fever Dream for the win.

John: Given the constraints of time, I chose to read one book out of the opening round winners and I chose The Idiot because having won the play-in and its first main draw matchup, I figured it was a strong contender and stood a chance to keep going. I suppose this makes me something like a curse. Me thinking a book is going to win appears to be pretty much a death sentence for its tournament fortunes

I am between you and Judge Saxena on the merits of The Idiot. I found Selin a very charming narrative presence, and I liked hearing her thoughts and feelings and difficulties in navigating the world. I believed her emotions. I don’t know if “real” is the right word to describe it because I can accept anything as “real” these days. Maybe “genuine” is a better description. The character has an integrity and internal consistency that makes her come to life on the page.

But…I could not get invested in her story. Structure-wise it’s what I call an “and then” novel, where each thing just kind of happens one after the next without feeling a strong sense of causation driving events, that because one thing happened, the next thing happened, etc… I would enjoy what I read as I read it, but I had no anticipation for what might come next, or where we might be heading.

It’s not that books need to do that, plenty don’t, but part of me felt this story would have benefited from more of that energy.

The judgments on Fever Dream in the Tournament thus far makes it sound like a great book and yet I have yet to read an account of it that makes me want to pick it up and start reading it. Maybe I’m just not prepared for a gut punch.

Kevin: If I were reverse-Biblioracling you, I would totally tell you to read Fever Dream.

Andrew Womack: Just a quick note here to all our readers. I hope everyone is enjoying this year’s Tournament; we know it’s been a wild ride so far, and we’re excited for everyone to see where it’s headed. We want to extend a special thank-you to all of our Sustaining Members: everyone who renewed their subscriptions and everyone who joined up this year. I cannot stress enough that without your support, the Tournament can’t exist. Every year this gets bigger, more involved, and—we like to think—better. And it’s all happening because of our members’ support. Please take a moment to find out why we need your help, and consider becoming a Sustaining Member today. Thanks—now back to Kevin.

Kevin: Before we sign off, let’s look to the Zombie rankings, where we see that The Idiot does not have quite enough votes to make it into the top two. If the Zombie Round were held today, Lincoln in the Bardo and Stephen Florida would still be our resurrected reads.

In tomorrow’s match Dear Cyborgs meets The End of Eddy, with novelist Rumaan Alam in the judge’s chamber, and the excellent Carolyn Kellogg of the Los Angeles Times in the booth.

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