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Arts & Culture

Walter Kirn Reflects On His Ivy League Education In New Memoir

"Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever" by Walter Kirn.
"Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever" by Walter Kirn.

I first read Walter Kirn when I picked up his novel “Up in the Air,” published shortly before all hell broke loose in September, 2001

A film version of "Up in the Air," starring George Clooney, is now in theaters and on many critics' 2009 "Best of" lists.

Full disclosure: I admired Walter Kirn’s sensitive writerly good looks from afar this summer while he ate his cornflakes at the Tin House Writer’s Workshop. However, I don’t believe this will prove to be an impediment in my review of his latest book “Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever.”


It was at the Tin House workshop that I heard him read an excerpt from “Meritocracy.” A book about Kirn’s coming of age, focusing mainly on the transformation he undergoes as a young man from Minnesota who lands himself in the upper echelons of American society at Princeton by 1. Following the rules 2. Excelling at test taking and 3. Reading between the lines to determine and meet grown ups’ expectations.

Kirn has a gift for comedy of the black and wry persuasion. More than a few times, I found myself alternately laughing out loud and cringing in shameful recognition of the child who-loves-to-please. He recalls a moment at the age of eight when “art-wise, I became a fraud… my stories about my art became my art. ‘This decoupage is about how sad I get when my father leaves on a long business trip.’ ‘This watercolor shows my happiness when it snows and I can use my sled.’ These stories brought praise and sometimes hugs, eventually convincing me that art was about one feeling above all others: being loved. Or wanting to be loved. And once I discovered this, I got straight A's.”

Kirn arrives at Princeton knowing he should feel wildly fortunate. But upon arrival, he realizes that contrary to what the movies would have you believe, Princeton isn’t much about books at all, but about old social mores. He wonders if he's been allowed inside by some calculation mistake by the SAT committee, or perhaps to fulfill a slot for "Midwesterner" in geographic diversity requirements.

Set adrift from the solidity of his home, he muddles through on a steady diet of acid, coffee, and the occasional trip to the library, trying to make sense of his place within the universe segmented neatly into Preppies, Druggies, Goths, spoiled NYC kids, and the Exchange Students Who Actually Study.

In one particularly painful moment, Kirn’s roommates order an entirely new living room set from Bloomingdale’s for their suite. When Kirn refuses to chip in as demanded, he is chided for his “recalcitrance” and permanently banned from the common room. When returning to his room, he must tiptoe around the Persian rug while the others eye him, cozily tucked into the couch with their bowls of popcorn.


The title page’s quote from "The Great Gatsby" alludes to Kirn’s acute sense of dislocation at Princeton. Fitzgerald wrote “I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, we're all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”

Like Gatsby, Kirn found himself within the storied gates of the Ivy League, but cannot quite navigate within the shark-infested waters. He writes of his Princeton classmates’ summer vacations: “I couldn’t distinguish among the seaside getaways where so many of my classmates said they intended to spend the summer vacation. When they spoke of visiting these spots, they used the preposition ‘on,’ as in ‘I’ll be on the Cape for August.’ When referring to Minnesota, I used ‘in’ which didn’t sound as good, I thought. But there was no other way to say it.”

The book hinges on Kirn’s aptitude for making comedy out of self-loathing and self-examination. “Meritocracy” is a memoir of education—not in the sense of books read and classes taken—but the slow and painful crawl toward finding one’s place in the world. And recognizing yourself for what you are, not what you thought you were supposed to be.