Perhaps no cultural phenomenon has been as successful at demonizing alcohol as MTV’s The Real World. Watch it sometime. You’ll never want to drink again. The roommates–barely legal, scared, nervous and prone to idiotic exhibitionism–are abandoned in foreign cities, with lots of money and practically nothing to do. They live in close quarters with other men and women, some of whom they don’t get along with, others with whom they want to sleep. They go out most nights and drink their faces off, dancing stupidly up against one another; when they trip home late at night, the mayhem continues. Someone inevitably says something racist, misogynistic or homophobic–or worse, pours out a personal sob story about why they’re so fucked up. All-night, incoherent talks about everyone’s respective “issues” ensue; couples vaguely attracted to each other fall into bed; others fight for no apparent reason. The next day, the roommates are lazy, depressed, gray-looking, slightly violent, filled with self-loathing, unable to remember the night’s chaotic events (thank God they have it all on tape!) and incapable of accomplishing much. So they drink again. It’s a silly train wreck of a show, and at some point, you realize these kids are just plain bored.
It all sounds a lot like college to me. Or, at least, a lot like college as portrayed in Koren Zailckas’s memoir Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood. In Smashed the scene of revelry and destruction is Syracuse University, a school that, because of its size, Greek system and paralyzingly cold weather, has long been a hotbed of binge drinking. Zailckas’s memoir is the story of her own pathological debauchery; in college, she drinks about five nights a week to feel better about herself, to laugh comfortably at parties, to muster the courage to hook up with boys. Still, she is not an alcoholic; Smashed remains firmly outside of the addiction memoir genre, falling somewhere between the ugly coming-of-age territory of Mary Karr (Zailckas’s mentor) and the frat-boy-and-violence landscape of memoirist Brad Land (author of Goat). It’s a strange breed of memoir, one that hard-core, longtime alcoholics might sniff at, or that any young writer might disdain–especially given the fact that Zailckas received an advance of $150,000 for it at the innocent age of 23.
For sure, after all the other memoirs, the Real World episodes, the ominous magazine articles and Tom Wolfe’s campus novel I Am Charlotte Simmons, Zailckas’s portrayal of college-age women growing up and falling down sounds pretty familiar. But what makes Zailckas’s book stand out is not that she drank but that–after some postcollege months of martini consumption in the frat-boy refuge of Manhattan’s Upper East Side–she quit. It’s not easy to say no to a beer at that age, when you’re tremulously just out of college and floundering for a new life. And it’s even harder in New York, where professional and personal activities revolve around bars and restaurants, “getting a drink” and “meeting for cocktails.”
Smashed, written during Zailckas’s initial months of sobriety, is considerably darker than my description of the sodden Real World-ers. In fact, it’s a very somber book, written in a tone of earnest melodrama one would expect from a young person who wholeheartedly believes she’s experienced a uniquely painful life. Her gravity will, no doubt, satisfy binge-drinker alarmists everywhere (and it’s since been reported that her publishers are sending Smashed to politicians, too). But the joylessness of the book might also strike ordinary readers as slightly disingenuous. Is it possible that this woman had no fun at all in high school and college?
It’s annoying to harp on a memoirist’s age, but it’s also hard not to. One cannot help but think that Zailckas, a few years later, wouldn’t have spent four dramatic pages on pointless roommate quarrels or meditations on the way college serves to “categorize” its students. When she vaguely writes, “I am ashamed of my gnarled soul, which is something no surgeon can correct,” you wonder, what’s she talking about? She’s a perfectly nice girl who, according to her memoir, has led a fairly uneventful life. Gnarled soul? But this sense of college as an inherently depressing place as well as this idea of her own badness, she will explain, was mostly due to alcohol.