Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever
By Walter Kirn
Doubleday, 224 pages
A year or so after my grandfather died, my mother and I packed the station wagon and drove what seemed the straight shot east to the coast of southern New Jersey—a place natives know only and resolutely as The Shore. I was too young to work a job and too old to play, though I was, at best, an awkward child anyway, unusually self-involved. Mornings I woke up late and walked down the five carpeted stairs to the kitchen; my mother made breakfast and even let me drink coffee, which my father claimed would stunt my growth. Afternoons and evenings I read, or went to the movies with my mother, or watched the ten-meter race boats dragging in from ocean to inlet to bay, their spinnakers high and mains flapping. Sometimes they were even under motor, and the captain and his crew smiled big toothy smiles and drank.
One day it was cool out and I was particularly bored—meaning I was anxious, burning even then with the feeling that I was wasting my time. Such were the fears of the Organization Kid, who did not even know what that meant: a boy for whom anxiety was gripping precisely because it could not be grasped. It was a desire to succeed or distinguish myself, some mix of narcissism and irremediable drive. If I could go to a good school, I get could away from all this, all the stuff of a life not unbearable but simply and damningly satisfying.
I walked across the street from the condominium complex, its lot filled with white and gray and purple Cadillacs, to the row homes off Bay Avenue. They were low slung; they drooped, as did the faces of the people inside, or the person on a motorcycle talking outside, chewing something and wearing a shirt without sleeves. I was thinking as a walked, my mind churning in that gray thrall I would later identify as depression, and what the adults in my life termed a “funk,” nothing more. The leisure of summer gnawed. A grayness darkened into milky black behind my eyes, and I sat on the curb and cried. After half an hour or so I stood up and decided to run back home—I did it, really; I ran directly into that chewing, shirtless man on the motorcycle, who eyed me up and down and asked, “What the hell are you doing here, rich boy? And why are you crying? You’ve got nothing to worry about.”
I was confused. I’m not rich, and my family isn’t rich, but for five minutes I seethed with the rootless anger of the better-off. My anxiety and brief flicker of depression gave way to anger. I’d wanted for nothing, and everyone seemed to know it. It was news to me.
The rest of the summer I spent inside or on the beach; I went back to Pennsylvania and studied for eight continuous years, give or take a weekend; I made good grades. Then I packed the station wagon again and drove to Princeton.
Whether this happened or didn’t happen, you’ll never know—you can’t verify it, even as its little telling details may seem right enough. This is a story drawn from memory, and warped not simply by the data-effacing neurons of my own brain, but by the artificial and social constraints of narrative proper—by the stricture of form and word in itself. Such was the scene, such was my mother, such was I—and in a flash the curtain was drawn, the truth revealed. I can say honestly I did live in Pennsylvania, and my grandfather did die, and I did go to Princeton, from which, after four years, I graduated in the beginning of June. And wouldn’t you know, my review copy of Walter’s Kirn’s Lost in the Meritocracy arrived that Tuesday, about two hours after commencement and two hours into whatever life then began.
I’m not here to argue that I can pass off my writing as Kirn’s, or that his entire portrayal of Princeton is, like the story above, doubly perverted by memory and the social impulse to remember as narrative. “There are, I suspect, a number of inaccuracies,” Kirn writes of his work in the preface, “but no deliberate deceptions.” That said, the memoir is composed of vignettes which contain a series of disjointed, occasionally surreal scenes, and of which many feel too artificial, too smooth and whittled clean, even for a genre whose fiction-making tendencies are well-known.
It’s not that Kirn’s book takes liberties—writing is, after all, the liberation of memory from its own articulation. Yet this freedom is only momentary. Once the writer’s words dry on the page, they are not his own; the memory-in-words confronts the agreed-upon limits of fiction, its rules of plot and form. Thus Kirn doesn’t err in the construction of memoir itself; instead, problematic in the text is something chthonic and complex, an author’s relation to the lies he tells and the truths to which he ascribes, when both are submitted to the mythmaking of writing itself.
The book has been reviewed and summarized elsewhere, and ably, so suffice it to say that, like Ross Douthat and William F. Buckley, Jr., Kirn has set about tearing away at an Ivy League institution from the inside, smashing the glass like Charles Foster Kane and remaining, as Kane does, within the mess of a life he’s made. But Kirn doesn’t die at Princeton—only his shell does. The sporting, smoking, dope-taking, raffish, punkish, lying “humanities student” whose sole skill, he argues, is an ability to regurgitate the thoughts of his teachers, or shape them a little, according to mood. “Appetite can be a kind of genius,” he writes. And that unalloyed stuff, all brio and bullshit, carries him through the foggy verities of the SAT, into a small liberal arts college in the Midwest (which he has entered early, on account of winning a poetry contest), then finally to Princeton.
Dei sub numine viget. Under divine providence, she flourishes. The “she,” let it be said (and Kirn agrees), is the University, and we’re not made to forget it. Though we are, of course, the focus of this institution which is so proudly oriented towards its undergraduates, we are also in the service of a greater thing—a school and a series of dormitory castles and athletic courts and selective eateries; a morass of attractive women and attractive (though poorly-dressed) men; a school that is also an encampment, a bulwark against ignorance and intolerance, though to a point and certainly not vociferously.
Yet there remain the others—kids who don’t join eating clubs or do join the egalitarian clubs assuming, like Kirn did, the sniveling aspect of Cassiuses and weaklings and Nietzsche’s trod-upon men. Such is the slave ethic of the overclass’s underclass: always we find the put-upon poet who, miraculously, maintains an active sex life, and wins an award or maybe even a grant to study abroad. Here is the hard-luck kid who has wanted for nothing and will want for nothing, but for four years must endure a theater of privation.
Like Kirn, I walked around campus smoking and fuming, literally and figuratively, as though people might take note of me—I do and don’t belong here. And, like Kirn, I joined Terrace, the “art club”; I took creative writing courses and seminars in Theory. Like Kirn, I sometimes worried my life was one flash and a long decline, and when the economy crumbled and we drank this autumn, my friends and I realized, upon cleaning up the party, that we, too, needed jobs and a clue about how to live on our own in the great thick of Out There.
Before college was the paradise of simple tasks and well-understood aims. Kirn made a perfect score on the bubble-test. He aped his teacher’s vocabulary and mannerisms until aping itself became a form of mastery. He floated into Princeton on a breeze of gently liberal “expressivism,” the anything-goes of life for those clever enough and rich enough to seize it. He dallied and had sex, took drugs and had more sex, once actually a threesome (but it was before Princeton, to be clear; that kind of debauchery, the real and possibly liberating kind, crops up there only as the darkest of transgressions—things violent, discussed in hushed tones). He wrote Berryman rip-offs in poetry class and Derrida rip-offs in Theory class and Warhol rip-offs for student drama productions, and he was successful, meaning people thought him so, and he conned his way to something called a Keasbey, which is a less-coveted but no less actual Rhodes-type scholarship, a ticket to Oxford.
But then, when he got sick after graduation, he cracked open Huck Finn and finished it. He gave up the faking life, the Confidence-Man routine, and made for the straight and narrow, one excruciating and hard-sounding paragraph at a time. He read in order to realign himself. He cleansed his mind of the perversions of Theory and the casual ignorance of a purely ambitious young man.
This is where I reach my aporia. I, too, have finished college and begun a course of private reading. I’m not sure I undertake the task as a means of atonement. But I do it all the same, in the naïve hope that I can reclaim the small joy that lay hidden in the acquisition of knowledge, before teachers and grades and Scantron tests rendered this curiosity indulgent. Let it be known, though, that I’d love to ask Kirn to flesh out the post-post-graduate life to which he telegraphically alludes. I imagine the drama of the memoir would be evacuated, in a simple retelling. I imagine, somehow, he’d wind up admitting he never quite changed and never was so bad in the first place. That he actually knew what the hell he was talking about, if only in one class a semester; that he did read Swann’s Way and through to the end, to boot.
Kirn’s is a story for people who believe—or want to believe—that they too have faked and succeeded. I can say it to myself. If I’m smart, I’m only smart according to some end, as a cog somewhere, as a swallower of idées fixes, as a closet worrier. The Confidence-Man, we learn, is really the Anxiety-Man. This is the truism of the schoolyard bully, and also of what David Foster Wallace affectionately terms “the library weenie,” whose line-leading and favor-currying leads to New Haven or Cambridge, Mass.
Sometimes a test is just that: a test. Sometimes a cigar a cigar, and a story a story. I agree with Kirn in some regards; in point of fact, I hate how right he is, on occasion, and how precisely he’s identified whatever angered me about Princeton’s social calculus. But I think Kirn admits to the artificiality of his narrative arc, in a section early in the text, devoted to an armchair analysis of James Joyce’s “The Dead.”
When asked by a friend what the last lines of the story mean, Kirn responds without missing a beat:
The lines are as follows:
His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
Irreducibility lies, in Joyce’s story, in the apparent human possession of end—“their end”—and the natural anti-humanism of snow. It falls “upon all the living and the dead.” And so it is with Kirn’s tall tale: he succeeds because he’s a faker, but the system made him a faker, and the system is unchanged. . . . Irreducibility, like most aspects of critical theory, is a kernel of paradox which can be appraised or misused. But even as Kirn critiques the facile conclusions of opportunistic English professors (who may or may not exist in life, and certainly not to the extent the author describes), he succumbs to the delusive charm of undergraduate windbagging. He wants to “deconstruct” the memoir and supply it with a more or less adequate facsimile, yet he cannot separate the surreal interpolations of his own mind—the lie of narrative—from the factual thrust of his argument. And, of course, the very fact of the book’s publication indicates that this argumentative frippery sells, even outside the walls of Academe.
Christian Lortentzen of n+1 calls this Kirn’s “con,” and though that’s a harsh term, it’s not entirely off the mark. By my way of thinking, it’s not con but confusion: a belief, held by the self-important characters of Western literature from Achilles to Frederic Moreau to Stephen Dedalus, that one can convince the self the stories it tells are true. This is another form of privilege, bestowed upon graduates of “fine institutions,” whereby sense is eschewed, and the mixed message is the message whole.
Point being: if you can get away with that sort of solecism, then you really have nothing to worry about.