The Meritocracy Quartet
The Meritocracy Quartet follows the life of the author, Jeffrey Lewis, through four decades of his life: the ‘60s, ‘70s,‘80s, and ‘90s, with each decade neatly separated from the other and memorialized in a separate book. The Quartet begins with A Love Story, which unfolds in the ‘60s, documenting Lewis and his wealthy Ivy League friends in the brief interval between graduation and adult life. The sweet, muddled naïveté of youth lingers despite their postured maturity, complete with crushes, delicate egos, and a determination to not be that-other-guy, but the guy, the one that everyone likes. This was the most poignant story; it was what Lewis needed to write, whereas the other stories seemed like something he had promised himself that he would write. If you only have time to read one book, read this one.
The Conference of the Birds takes place in the ‘70s, and follows Lewis, now a misdirected young adult, who joins a pseudo-intellectual, snobbish group in New York City that adheres to the questionable beliefs of an authoritative, gauche, self-proclaimed guru from Brooklyn. The story becomes increasingly frustrating as so much of it resides within Lewis’ thoughts. His surroundings and peers are squeezed through the filter of his thoughts and emotions until they are nothing but tinted shadows. This was likely done to illustrate his worldview at the time, but it is not easy to read.
Theme Song for an Old Show captures the ‘80s; a period when Lewis cast off his former confusion and wholeheartedly embraced reality. He traded in the east coast for the west coast, bartered self-analysis for a job as a TV script writer, and reconnected with his father. The hustled pace of his life in LA provides relief from the dark, stifled reality of the prior decade. But the change of pace is not enough to cover the rough start of this book, which reads like a series of wadded pages that were pulled from the rubbish bin and tacked back together. It’s not until midway through that Lewis redeems himself. The true success of this book is here, where Lewis offsets his complex emotions for his father with his detached ability to deftly capture him through his gestures, behavior, and unspoken words.
Adam the King is set in the ‘90s and follows the later days of Adam Bloch, Lewis’s college friend-of-sorts, who became a billionaire and married the sister of the woman that Lewis and all his friends adored as undergrads. Adam, an under-loved man who was rarely the center of any thought, is depicted here as the topic of a small town in Maine. The story itself is imaginary: Lewis envisions what Adam and the people around him likely thought, felt, and said. This is an attempt to understand the world from Adam’s perspective. Yet, despite this book being about Adam, and in a way, a memorial to his life, I’m filled with an urge to defend him. Most of the characters speak brashly of Adam and judge him too harshly. Yet, if what Lewis wanted was for someone – even a reader who never met him – to want to stand-up for Adam and his life, he succeeded.
When read separately, the distinctions between the stories are clearly perceived, and they do not seem to fit together. But, ultimately, it’s this disjointed nature that is the most believable aspect of The Meritocracy Quartet, for lives are not seamlessly sewn together, but rather, forged by coincidence, necessity, and expectation, a fact that Lewis brilliantly conveys. In a nutshell, Lewis’ memories portray a modern, American life.