At first, ‘The Idiot’ was encouraging. I knew exactly what to expect from Dostoevsky— streams-of-consciousness and lots of dialogue— and the beginning of the book sneakily masqueraded as lucid. Then, about halfway through, I realized that there wasn’t exactly a plot (surprise!).
Dostoevsky is not an action writer. It’s not that nothing happens in his books, it’s that the events are like towns in South Dakota. You drive through lots of boring stretches, and then you pass a town so small you’ll miss it if you blink. The things that do happen in ‘The Idiot’— murder attempts, impulsive marriage proposals, drunk guys doing drunk-guy things— are intriguing if not intense, but they take place over the course of exactly a paragraph, and then the author moves on to the much more pressing matter of rambling.
There were, however, some pretty good conversations in ‘The Idiot.’ Myshkin (the main character, who probably pretends to be timid to cover up the fact that he’s secretly a super-spy) gets into a talk with three chicks about executions and the thoughts that would run through a person’s head the moment before death. Later in the book, a bunch of people get bored at a party so they decide to talk about the worst thing they’ve done in their lives. Instead of a huge guilt-fest, Dostoevsky uses his characters’ stories to blur morality lines. The guy is a philosopher— he wants you to think. He also wants you to perform the super-human feat of keeping your brain engaged while he gets to the point, but I think if you do the former you’re allowed to cheat on the latter.
The characters in ‘The Idiot’ are particularly compelling, and “compelling” here has the meaning “basically insane.” The aforementioned Myshkin is the only one who seems chemically balanced. Everyone else is described as frantic or frenzied about ninety percent of the time, while Myshkin hangs out, pining over a girl and acting meek. In fact, the only real difference between Myshkin and any character played by Michael Cera is that Myshkin has enough of a backbone to take everyone’s bullying because he’s actually indifferent, and not, in fact, spineless. The center-stage crazies are Nastasya, the love interest, who has the romantic attention span of a gnat and whom everyone loves despite the fact that she’s frankly a bitch, and Rogozhin, a loose cannon with a propensity for murderous rages. Not a good combination.
If you make it through all the pow-wows and psychosis, you are sort of rewarded with the ending. Murder! Homoerotic subplots! Nervous breakdowns! It’s all very exciting! I just wish it hadn’t been squished into the last ten pages, because by the time I got to it I was so fed up that I didn’t care at all.