Faking it at Princeton

As a 4-year-old, Walter Kirn had a kindly adult mentor who taught him that knowledge was "a way to assess your location, your true position, not a strategy for improving your position."

But Kirn managed to make it through his school years by entirely ignoring that definition. He subverted it at every opportunity. "Lost in the Meritocracy" is a funny, self-mocking memoir about how persistently Kirn went astray.

This book is also a clear example of the very same scheming that it decries. Kirn now blames himself for getting through his school years by taking tests well, echoing his teachers' opinions and telling people whatever they wanted to hear, thanks to his "aptitude for showing aptitude, mainly."

Now he works that magic on readers. He plays on their schadenfreude with his stories of clawing his way to Princeton University then feeling like a miserable fraud there. Each chapter delivers a neat little lesson about the perils of being "bound for the sharp end of the pyramid," which is a flattering concept no matter how archly the author uses that phrase. And however wretched and alienating Kirn's college years may have been, this book reflects that they have served him well in the long run.

Kirn grew up in a number of different places because of a peripatetic father who was himself a disaffected Princeton alumnus. Although this book serves up stories about elementary school, they vary greatly in interest. The memoir picks up considerably once its author is attending high school, with classmates who share neither his ruthlessness nor his ambitions. But it doesn't fully hit its stride until Kirn, after a year at Macalester College, makes his way to Princeton as a transfer student and finds himself in "a place that no longer seemed to want me once it decided, by some fluke, to have me."

At this stage in his intellectual development, Kirn says, his fraudulence was the truest thing about him. "It represented ambition, longing, need," he writes. "It sprung from the deepest chambers of my soul." And it served him perfectly, not only in his early college days but also in the construction of this book. As a fraud he could play the chameleon, and his many incarnations give wide variety to his college chapters.

"Lost in the Meritocracy" is too slickly rendered to be surprising. But its college stories are deft and often great fun. Kirn does a better job of summoning and satirizing those around him than he does of honestly revisiting his own inner turmoil. His descriptions of gaming Princeton's academic system say more about that system than they do about him.

Once he had decided to major in English, "since it sounded like something I might already know," he learned to enjoy tossing the vocabulary of deconstructionism back at his teachers. He felt empowered to attack a Western canon that he had never really read, skipping "straight from ignorance to revisionism." These academic madeleines are as nostalgia-inducing as the well-chosen pop culture references in the book.

It's easy to believe that he experienced terrible angst under the social and academic pressures of his college years. No matter: It's clear from the authorial voice of "Lost in the Meritocracy" that he bounded back nicely and figured out how to frame and package his memories with reader-pleasing finesse, no thanks to his formal education.