Read Lost in the Meritocracy (v5) Online

Authors: Walter Kirn

Tags: #Literary, #Walter - Childhood and youth, #American - 20th century, #Students, #Students - United States, #20th Century, #American, #21st Century, #General, #United States, #Students & Student Life, #Personal Memoirs, #Literary Criticism, #Kirn, #Authors, #Biography & Autobiography, #Education, #American - 21st century, #Biography, #Higher

Lost in the Meritocracy (v5) (9 page)

BOOK: Lost in the Meritocracy (v5)
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“We figured out everyone’s part in this whole thing,” Peter informed me the next morning as I tried to slip past him and out the door. He was watching the
show with Tim and Jennifer, all of them snugly embedded in the new sofa and showing no sign they intended to go to classes or do anything but drink tea all day and snicker. “Your share is six hundred and seventy,” he said.

“My share of what?”

“Our new living room,” said Tim.

“But I didn’t order any of this stuff.”

“Well, you’ll benefit from it, won’t you?” Jennifer said.

This was my first brush with a line of reasoning that would echo through my years at Princeton: even unbidden privileges must be paid for. Tuition, the university liked to tell us, covered only a fraction of the cost of students’ educations. What’s more, the benefits of a Princeton degree were so far-reaching and long-lasting, supposedly, that for the duration of our lives we would be expected to give money to various university funds and causes, all of which were portrayed as critical to carrying out what was called the place’s “mission.” I’d assumed that a deal was a deal when Princeton admitted me, but I was mistaken, it turned out. The price of getting in—to the university itself, and to the presumed wonderland it led to—would be an endless dunning for nebulous services that weren’t included in the prospectus.

My roommates kept pestering me but I stood firm. I told them I couldn’t pay and wouldn’t pay. I told them there was a principle at stake, though I wasn’t quite certain which one. It felt like more than one. After a while they stopped approaching me and convened a meeting in the common room—to discuss my “recalcitrance,” they said. I sat out the proceedings in my bedroom as Joshua strummed a brooding Neil Young song about Cortés, the brutal Spanish explorer, and all the natives he’d smoothly decimated. Joshua had paid his bill without a fuss, it seemed, which struck me as an egregious violation of his solemn Quaker duty to resist unjust authority. I didn’t press this point, however. The atmosphere in the suite was tense enough by then, and I needed a friend and ally, however meek. Or maybe he wasn’t meek at all, maybe he’d mastered the art of wise acceptance, bending like the willow, Quaker style, and rendering unto Caesar, etcetera. We certainly seemed to be surrounded by Romans.

Tim delivered the verdict after the meeting. He addressed me in his unfamiliar adult voice, which sounded as phony as his baby voice, all husky and burred and ripped off from the movies. I was banned, he declared, from touching any item that I had not bought stock in. This included the Persian rug. Did I understand? I said I did. The necessity of avoiding the vast silk rug would place the entire common room off-limits to me, confining me to my sleeping quarters, the bathroom, and the hallway that ran to the front door.

The suite was now a concentrated version of what the whole campus would come to represent for me: 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 as arbitrarily as it had been issued. I lay on my bunk that night and raged inside, sinking at last into a seething sleep that was the opposite of rest. Instead of dreams I had metaphysical wrestling matches with disembodied oppressors. I woke up with blood on my front teeth, having bitten or chewed a hole in my tongue tip. The next few nights were just as black and taxing. By the weekend I’d developed a rolling twitch, a sort of chronic electrical disturbance, deep in the calf muscles of both my legs. When I tried to massage away the spasms, they spread to my thighs, then up into my hips. I started taking aspirin with every meal, switching to Tylenol when aspirin hurt my stomach. I borrowed a book on Buddhism from the library, learned the rudiments of meditation, and even devised a mantra for myself, “Ormalatala,” a string of nonsense syllables that sounded as if they ought to soothe me but made me feel silly, desperate, and unhinged.

The one thing I didn’t try was disobedience. I reacted to the new charter by strictly heeding it, thinking this might draw attention to its absurdity. I limited my movements to the traffic lanes, looking away when the TV was on and laying not a toe upon the rug. My wardens ignored me, unembarrassed, strangers both to pity and to shame. Two weeks after sending me into outer darkness, they started throwing big parties in the common room, setting out trays of vegetables and cheeses and mixing cocktails from a well-stocked bar whose bottles and glasses had arrived by limousine. The guests were giddy campus drama types, mostly from New York City or its best suburbs, who seemed to have known one another, in many cases long before they entered Princeton, through a network of New England summer arts camps directed by luminaries I’d seen in magazines and couldn’t imagine stooping to teach teenagers. The party guests looked at me with shining eyes and curious faces as I trod silently past them to the bathroom or darted, head down and sheepish, into my bedroom. What did they think was my problem, or did they know?

One night a dark-haired junior named Nina, an established director at Princeton’s Theatre Intime, shadowed me to my bedroom. She plunked down a whiskey sour on my desk next to the Hermes manual typewriter which held a page from a play I’d started writing about the president and his top national security aide. Making up lines for imaginary people eased the spasms in my legs, I’d found. As long as I was them, I wasn’t me, and as long as I wasn’t me, I didn’t twitch.

“You’re fond of stichomythia,” said Nina, straightening and reading the curled page. “You’re a Beckett fan, obviously. Or is it Pinter?”

I let these baffling allusions ride.

“What’s it about?”


“In what respect?”

“Pretty much all of them,” I said.

Nina sat down with her drink on Joshua’s mattress in a manner that showcased her black stockings and the red straps that hooked them to her garter belt. Her skirt was made of wet-looking black vinyl, a fabric I’d only seen once, on a TV show, worn by a foxy LA vice cop working undercover as a prostitute.

“I know why you’re not at the party. Infantile. If it makes you feel any better, they’re clowns. They’re hacks. Their idea of a show is girls in tights, kicking their pretty ankles above their heads.”

I toasted this insult with my plastic cup. Nina’s black turtle-neck tightened across her chest as she returned the gesture. I could tell she’d grown up in New York like all the rest of them, and I thought I could even guess which neighborhood: the Upper West Side. One of her parents was probably a professor, of history or philosophy, most likely. Childhood trips to Florence and Madrid, a fondness for Jamaican reggae, and a sibling who was in trouble with the law thanks to a weakness for heroin or gambling. Just a few months after leaving my small town, I was becoming an expert social bird-watcher. And there weren’t all that many species, I’d discovered—not, at least, among the Princeton art crowd. There were the somber iconoclasts like Nina, children of darkest intellectual Europe, and the exuberant show-offs like my roommates, who reveled in spectacle and song. My natural loyalties were with the first group, but not because I understood their premises. I liked them because they disliked the others, as I did.

By the time Nina left to fetch us two fresh drinks, I sensed that she found my outcast status intriguing and fancied herself a sort of exile, too, as wasn’t uncommon, I’d find out, with kids who’d been raised at the center of everything. An hour later I was lying on top of her in a cold off-campus communal house which reeked of hashish, crème de menthe, and brown bananas. On the cracked stucco walls were unframed student paintings whose abstract muddiness irked me for some reason. My love-making was brisk, ungenerous. This suited Nina just fine. “You’re good,” she said. “You know how to take, to be selfish. I guessed right.”

“How?” I said.

“The beautiful wild fury behind your eyes.”

That Nina had seen my anger surprised me. Ever since being booted from the common room, I’d labored to hide my wrath under a smirk so as not to gratify my enemies. With Nina’s wet breath roaring warmly in my ear canals, I decided to change this policy. Raw disgruntlement was rare at Princeton, and some people found it beguiling, it seemed. “Play your best card,” my father had always said. Mine would be an ace of spades. A black ace.

Dating Nina raised my profile in serious campus drama circles and brought support for the staging of my play:
Late Modern, an Apocalyptic Comedy
. My roommates were unmoved by my step up and didn’t admit me to their get-togethers—their “salons,” as they’d begun to call them. Nina was no longer welcome at them, either. The wonder was that she ever had been. Her spare, dimly lit productions of Beckett’s
and Ionesco’s
were, according to Peter, “utter masturbatory anarchy.” I didn’t entirely disagree with him. Nina’s theatrical hero, I’d discovered, was a mad Frenchman, Antonin Artaud, whose writings suggested that the ideal play ought to resemble a sort of torchlit orgy climaxing in a crackdown by the police.

My piece was staged in an airless black-box theater tucked beneath a campus rec room stuffed with clacking foosball tables and beeping Space Invaders consoles. The director was Adam, whom I’d met through Nina, who’d begun taking credit for my ascent while privately telling me, “You’ll choke. You’ll blow this.” She had good reason to be concerned. On rehearsal nights, before the cast arrived, Adam and I would push thin coffee straws through the drilled-out rubber stopper of an ampoule of pure liquid cocaine which he’d pilfered from a New York hospital where he’d worked as an orderly that summer. The drugs, we thought, sharpened our vision of the production, but they also prevented us from clearly conveying it to our two main actors, who rolled their eyes at our psychedelic suggestions to “lead with your auras,” “float above the lines,” “gesture negatively through stillness,” and “turn every pause into a small inferno.”

One night my lead, my President, a sorrowful tall Southerner named Reynolds who seemed to be at Princeton on the strength of having carried the antique gene for tubercular romantic wispiness into modern times, mounted a polite aesthetic mutiny.

“The script has weaknesses. It’s thin. A tissue. It’s part an homage to Kubrick’s
Dr. Strangelove

“A movie,” I said, “which of course I’ve never seen.”

“You must have. Believe me. You’ve just forgotten. My obsession with purity, my hypochondria, that’s one hundred percent out of the film.”

“Maybe some of it, twenty minutes, on TV once.”

“And part a stereotypical revue sketch on erotically blocked religious maniacs.”

“I was a Mormon, Reynolds. These aren’t stereotypes. I had a bishop in my early teens whose remedy for my dirty thoughts—no lie—was buying a
, tearing out the centerfold, and drawing wounds on it, gaping bloody wounds, with a red Magic Marker.”

“I’m sorry you went through that. My largest concern is not the content, though. It’s the shape of the play. The narrative skeleton.”

I nodded to show respect for his concern, then blew out a roiling plume of cigarette smoke into the beam of a high-intensity can light.

“You’re saying it’s cloud-shaped. A swirl. A nebula.”

“I’m saying nothing. I’m letting physics speak for me.”

“So what’s my goal in this thing? My inner arc?”

“To launch a nuclear missile, call God to earth, and usher in the age of peace and love. It might be a dream, though. A hallucination. Happening not in the White House to the president but to a patient in an asylum.”

“I can’t even tell you how often that’s been done. It’s like when the Martians invade and people panic, except it turns out they’ve come to teach, to heal.”

“Maybe. But not to my knowledge,” I said.

“Then get more knowledge. Please.”

“Stand on your tape mark and wait till Adam gets back. Practice your speech about when you were a kid and blew up a firecracker in your hand that left a round scar like the sky wheel in Ezekiel.”

I’d put down the revolt, but I was rattled. I stopped attending rehearsals. When I learned that my roommates had all bought tickets to the opening performance, I begged Adam to call off the production, but his drug-stoked momentum was unstoppable. “We’re here to disturb, not impress or please,” he said. “And the play’s not just yours now. It’s all of ours. It’s its. It belongs to itself. It’s a creature with a will. You need to drop the leash and let it run.”

“The coke’s all gone, isn’t it? Let me see the ampoule.”

Adam tapped a finger on his forehead. “Metabolized, not gone.”

My adversaries took seats in the third row, their playbills neatly settled on their laps, their postures preposterously magisterial, as though they were overseeing a war-crimes trial. I lurked in the back against an exit door. The shudders rippled down my thighs and calves as though my legs were being unzipped. The disasters materialized early. The President skipped an entire page of dialogue only a minute or two into the show, while the National Security Adviser absently twisted a pinkie in his left ear during a speech that was intended by the author as a symphonic lamentation over our hunger for belief, for faith, and the dangers posed by the fact that we never feel full. There were technical issues, too. The lighting guy, who’d eaten a hash brownie which he’d sworn would wear off before the show, toggled at random between clashing colors, turning the stage into a cruise-ship disco, and during the silences between big lines misfired foosballs from the upstairs lounge bounced on the ceiling, as sharp as hammer strikes, then rolled along endlessly above our heads in grainy, resonant acoustic detail.

The audience didn’t seem to mind, though. There was even a fair amount of laughter. It came in different spots than I’d anticipated, but this made it no less heartening to me. Indeed, it seemed to bear out Adam’s theory about the way that plays escape their masters.

People patted my shoulder as they left. I even got several kisses on both cheeks from stylish upperclassmen. My roommates’ reactions were stingy and oblique but nothing like the sharp lashes I’d expected. Jennifer winked in the way that people do when they want you to lie in bed all night wondering exactly what they meant. Peter said, “Not at all a total debacle.” Tim turned and faced me as though he planned to speak but instead he tapped me on the breastbone with a tightly rolled-up playbill, either granting me a kind of knighthood or threatening me with Mafia violence—I couldn’t tell. Which I knew was what he wanted.

BOOK: Lost in the Meritocracy (v5)
11.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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