Review: Lost in the Meritocracy

Lost in the Meritocracy by Walter Kirn

I’ll be honest—I expected something a little different from Lost in the Meritocracy. I was just expecting a scathing indictment of the soullessness of the American education system buoyed by Kirn’s personal experiences here and there, and I got a memoir instead. Gentle readers, you may recall that I don’t really read memoirs; unless someone I already really like has written it (like Michael Chabon or Tina Fey), I tend to sail by them completely. In fact, I don’t even remember how this recommendation even came to me… In the end, though, I still got what I came for, even if it wasn’t as much as I wanted or in quite the same way as I expected.

Lost in the Meritocracy is a memoir by Walter Kirn that focuses on his education, how the mechanical nature of the American education system failed him, and how he overcame it. From public grade school in Minnesota during the early seventies to Princeton in the eighties, Kirn, ever seeking approval, managed to find the perfect way to achieve academically without self-fulfillment, which led to his breakdown at Princeton, which he overcame by teaching himself to learn organically and without seeking attention.

This is a very light piece, despite its subject matter (which I’ll get to in a moment)—it just squeaks over two hundred pages, and Kirn the writer has placed plenty of distance between himself and the young man he used to be, as he dissects him brutally. For some reason, I actually thought this was about public school in the nineties, which it most certainly isn’t. Again, it’s a memoir as opposed to any kind of nonfiction, which I wasn’t expecting. Kirn opens with a bus ride to the SATs where his friends decide to drink before the big test, dooming them to stay in their Minnesotan hometown, and then flashes forward to a drug-fueled evening shortly before his breakdown before settling into its beginning proper—Kirn’s first learning experiences at the hand of a strict but good-hearted mentor known to him as Uncle Admiral. There are a few short musings on meritocracy later in the book, but it doesn’t particularly go in-depth about it; if you pick this up hoping to find an analysis of the system and a solution for it, seek elsewhere.

I hadn’t read anything by Kirn, who also writes novels and reviews books for The New York Times and Time, before picking this up, and his writing style is interesting. He has that knack for the one detail that I usually love in writers of any stripe—for instance, he describes a classmate that turns him in for cheating thusly: “He was fat in a way that suggested some imbalance, some inability to eliminate fluids, with a broad, soggy face and little seedlike eyes” (105-106). But while I admire it, what keeps me from loving it is how cruel it is. Obviously, Kirn’s breakdown was a dark time in his life, but there’s something slightly vicious about how he attacks all his subjects—from elementary school onwards—that took me slightly aback. It’s hard to look back at yourself at a time when, well, you weren’t really yourself, but becoming yourself; Michael Chabon explores this in a fantastic piece collected in Manhood for Amateurs. I hate doing it myself—I often wonder if my bad memory isn’t me just trying to repress what an idiot I was. But Kirn can’t quite balance the affection and distaste that Chabon does in Manhood for Amateurs, which leads to these vicious, if equal opportunity, jabs. To be fair, it does allow for beautifully honest moments like Kirn’s reflection on how his father, who chafes in his white collar job, views duty, which “always meant loss of freedom, never an opportunity for strength” (112). But these are too far and few in between to lighten up the casual cruelty.

While Kirn’s opening depicts him and his roommate attempting to use drugs to help them academically, drug use pervades the memoir. Now, I have nothing against depicting things as they really were; I prefer it. But what gets me is that there’s no real reason presented. The drug use is just… there. Kirn never seems to make a decision, which, to be fair, fits in with the idea of seeking “glory” for its own sake; at first, he never questions why he would seek it, so it makes sense that he’d never consider why he’s taking drugs or even seem interested in it beyond needing a fix. But even that indecision is never depicted or questioned. They’re just a fact of life for him, which I found odd, but then again, how would I know? Lost in the Meritocracy validates learning for the sake of learning, not for the sake of academic achievements—the section where Kirn spends a summer putting himself back together mentally is interesting, as is the ending of the book, where Kirn wins a scholarship that’s barely based on academics. Ultimately, it’s about coming of age and discovering yourself under all those unquestioned actions, but it’s too light and vicious for me to recommend wholeheartedly.

Bottom line: Lost in the Meritocracy is a light memoir instead of an in-depth analysis of the American education system buoyed by personal experience. While Kirn has that knack for choosing the right detail, the writing style is remarkably vicious towards everyone, including the young Kirn. Ultimately, it is about discovering yourself under all those unquestioned actions, but it’s too light and vicious for me in the end. If you’d like.

I rented this book at the public library.

  • Kirn, Walter. Lost in the Meritocracy. New York: Anchor Books, 2010. Print.

4 thoughts on “Review: Lost in the Meritocracy

  1. >>>It’s hard to look back at yourself at a time when, well, you weren’t really yourself, but becoming yourself; Michael Chabon explores this in a fantastic piece collected in Manhood for Amateurs. I hate doing it myself—I often wonder if my bad memory isn’t me just trying to repress what an idiot I was.

    I have actually found it to be really cleansing to look back at myself when younger and dumber, and notice what mistakes I’ve made and what I would do differently if I had another go-round. Or actually I suppose what’s cleansing is talking about it, being able to make a joke about what a dope I used to be. That makes the memory less sort of painful and embarrassing, and more of a silly story to tell about dumb Past Me.

  2. i’m always looking for new memoirs to read, whether they’re successful or not, but it sounds like his details are interesting, though vicious. maybe that’s the takeaway? thanks for the review though. i’ve requested it from my library.

  3. I’m a little disappointed that’s the case with the book because I’ve had it on my list and because all the reviews I’ve read of it made it sound like a dissection of the “Organization Kids” produced by the current “meritocracy.” (As coined by David Brooks in an article about Elena Kagan: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/11/opinion/11brooks.html?emc=eta1). Oh well, I do enjoy a good memoir especially by a fellow disenchanted overachiever. . .

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