Lost in the Meritocracy

By Walter Kirn

There’s probably no other literary genre that has suffered as much over the course of the last decade as memoir. Certain weaknesses are inherent to the form, among them the fact that nobody can remember with perfect accuracy events they participated in even a week ago much less in their childhood, that we are really only interested in the misfortunes of others, and that telling one’s own story necessarily leads to a self-interested defence of one’s life. These cracks in the foundation have, in turn, led to the excesses of what has been labeled “faction,” MiseryLit, and all kinds of special pleading and self-pitying appeals to the reader’s sympathy.

Author Walter Kirn wallows in the worst of these excesses in this account of his “undereducation.” In the first place, Lost in the Meritocracy describes itself as a “work of memory” containing “I suspect, a number of inaccuracies, but no deliberate deceptions.” This is putting it lightly since Kirn’s bildungsroman begins with private lessons he started receiving at the age of four and scenes from the early grades of public school. In other words, events and dialogue recalled – with a suspiciously novelistic eye for detail – over forty years later (considerably more than the “over twenty-five years” later mentioned in his author’s note).

One’s suspicions are raised not just because Kirn is a novelist, but also because he is a self-described phony. “My fraudulence,” he explains, was “the truest thing about me.” And while this may seem like admirable candor it leaves the reader wondering what to believe. It is also, in the end, less the confession of a personal failing then a claim of superiority. The fact that Kirn managed to succeed so well at his version of the paper chase just shows how easy it is for someone with his charm and intelligence to cynically fake his way through the system and play his professors for suckers.

Most of the book is taken up with the time Kirn spent at Princeton. Since getting into Princeton immediately brands one as member of an elite, Kirn works hard to explain why he never really belonged there.

Here he is, for example, on a “rare” visit to Princeton’s imposing Firestone Library:

Standing on the plaza near its entrance, lighting yet another cigarette as a way of postponing going inside, I could imagine a legion of the literate aiming crossbows from the parapets at onrushing armies of hollering barbarians. The confrontation might end in countless casualties, but the books would survive, civilization would endure. Not me, though – I’d probably be slaughtered. Firestone intimidated me, breeding a sort of cultural vertigo whenever I found myself in its vaulted lobby presenting my puny ID card to the guards. When the battle for civilization finally came I’d probably be stranded outside its walls.

Kirn an insider? “Not me”! His pass card is “puny” (later, checking out some books, he presents what he calls his “dubious credentials”), paradoxically serving only to identify him as an outsider. He is a phony Princetonian, you see. Money doesn’t interest him and he feels a deep connection to the common man and various minorities. This makes him out-of-group among his snobby, trust-fund roommates, who look down on him and pick on him horribly. This despite the fact that the only thing that sets him apart is the fact that he comes from a rural part of Minnesota (where his father, a former Princeton grad and corporate lawyer, has decided to slum it for a while). Otherwise, Princeton seems to have been a lot of fun. As he tells the story, Kirn is an irresistible stud, with pampered princesses, pedophiles and sinister German homosexuals all lining up to hit on him. He also takes a lot of drugs, and can faithfully report that “there is no drug scene like an Ivy League drug scene.” Sex and drugs and even petty vandalism of other people’s property! Happy, happy schooldays!

Such suffering in Topsiders is all too much to bear, and he suffers a dimly explained, vaguely literary mental breakdown. He enters into therapy to rid himself of his “curse.” This he does by accepting, with a heavy heart, that he is “for better or for worse,” officially a member of the “class that runs things.” And so he learns to take pleasure in reading books (the classics, naturally), and his education truly begins.

The music soars, there is a slow fade, the credits run. The overachiever is going to be OK. And the con goes on.

Review first published online February 8, 2010.

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