Poison Ivy

Walter Kirn recalls his Princeton-fueled breakdown.

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PICTURES FROM AN INSTITUTION Kirn found his higher-learning experience a recipe for mental collapse.

PICTURES FROM AN INSTITUTION Kirn found his higher-learning experience a recipe for mental collapse. Photograph: Alexis Dahan

While writing Lost in the Meritocracy, a memoir about his troubled time as a Princeton undergraduate, Walter Kirn turned to one of his alma mater’s more famous alumni, F. Scott Fitzgerald. “I read The Crack-Up I don’t know how many times,” says Kirn, 46, from his Montana home, referring to Fitzgerald’s own account of mental disintegration. “He had that crack-up at 40. I had it at 19.”

As Lost in the Meritocracy reveals, Kirn spent much of his junior year at Princeton in a state of psychological and intellectual free fall, barely able to speak or think. He attributes this to several factors. “The first was the assumption behind deconstruction that words were arbitrary markers that said more about power than they did about the objects they supposedly described,” he says. “Second, I was resorting to all sorts of intoxicants that increasingly numbed my brain. And third, I was socially on the outside looking in. Between these three forces, I collapsed mentally.”

Kirn, who grew up in a middle-class Midwestern family “steeped in skepticism and in retreat from privilege,” transferred to Princeton, with the help of a National Merit Scholarship and his mother’s salary as a nurse, after a year at Minnesota’s Macalester College. The culture shock proved overwhelming. Upon arriving, he moved into a dorm whose inhabitants decided, without consulting him, to buy expensive furniture and electronics and stick Kirn with a share of the bill. Refusing to pay, Kirn was ostracized by his roommates. As he writes, “The suite was now a concentrated version of what the whole campus would come to represent: a private association of the powerful, which I’d been invited to visit on a day pass that, I sensed, might be revoked at any time.” Soon after, in the memoir’s most dramatic scene, he trashes the room while everyone else is away on break. Although the college overlooks the “unsolved” crime, covered by the students’ insurance, Kirn is required to move out.

“These are institutions that expect you to get with the program no matter where you came from,” Kirn says of his inability to assimilate. “And the program was determined and created by social and economic upper classes. You either learn to be a booster for those values or you’re out. You may get the degree and you may reengineer yourself as a pseudomember of the inner circle, but you’ll never be a part of it, because its identity has roots in institutions and customs that you can’t instinctively know.”

Ironically, Kirn’s reached an inner circle of sorts—he is an acclaimed novelist (Thumbsucker) and has written frequently for Esquire and The New York Times Book Review. But he remains distrustful of power and is admittedly adversarial. “I have a deep ambivalence about upper echelons,” he says. “I may find them fascinating and see opportunity in them, but I get to them and I become rebellious and our association doesn’t last long. Thus my residence in Montana.”

Lost came out of an article that Kirn wrote in 2005 for The Atlantic. He says that essay generated more response than anything ever he’d written. “People who read the article wanted to tell their stories,” he says. Almost any American college experience can be disorienting, Kirn says. “So many people immigrate intellectually and socially at 17 and 18, experiencing a lot of the same shocks I did.”

Still, his critique focuses on the the education of so-called overachievers. As Kirn notes, meritocracy was initially a pejorative term coined by Michael Young in his 1958 book The Rise of the Meritocracy, a satire of utopian social engineering in which upward mobility is determined by IQ tests. Eventually, the oppressed masses rebel, overthrowing the ruling class. “A meritocracy depends on certain attributes being measurable,” says Kirn. “But you can’t make rankings without criteria, which in my generation became the pseudo-scientific ratings of intelligence.”

Despite his own literary success, Kirn believes that universities such as Princeton actually impede the development of good writers. “I don’t know that elite schools have done anything for the production of literature,” he says. “They do a lot to buff it up and shine it.” But that polish doesn’t always amount to art. “The most fertile impulses in the production of literature are self-doubt, nakedness, disclosure and pain. Who wants to see it just be a parade of the assured exhibiting the wonderful facility they borrowed from institutions?”

Lost in the Meritocracy (Doubleday, $24.95) is out now.

Portrayal of the young artist

Two of Walter Kirn’s novels have been made into films: Thumbsucker (2005) and Up in the Air, which stars George Clooney and will be released later this year. If Lost in the Meritocracy is adapted for the screen, who will play the college-age Kirn? Our guess: Chris Pine.

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