Jarv’s Favourite Books. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
It’s been a while since I delved back into my extensive library. Not sure why, really, other than that I was vacillating over which book to do next. Part of me thought that I’d review one of the more difficult Murakami books, and I did want to cover The Bonfire of the Vanities, but Droid’s just started reading it. However, in the end, Kingsley Amis’ debut novel, Lucky Jim, was looking at me on the shelf, and the choice was just obvious.
Jim Dixon is a lecturer at a fictitious British University in the 1950′s. Due to an inexplicable cock-up when he first arrived, he’s terrified that his position is under threat. However, given that he detests his job, his superior (Professor Welch) and his life in general, this isn’t necessarily a surprise for him. Nor is it a shock to him that almost all of his current travails are as a result of some ludicrous misunderstanding or other. He’s romantically involved with the truly dreadful Margaret, also a lecturer, and whiles his days away in an alcohol-driven stupor planning how he can get the three prettiest girls in the History department to take his course. Lucky Jim follows his disastrous escapades at the various fartily academic events he has to attend, his attempts to steal Welch’s son Bertrand’s girlfriend Christine and the novel culminates in Dixon getting completely plastered and butchering the lecture intended to save his career. I won’t spoil the actual end of the novel, but needless to say, Jim does indeed turn out to be Lucky.
Kingsley Amis is frequently referred to as one of the Angry Young Men of British Literature in the 50′s (others of note included John Osborne), but I think that does him a disservice. While Osborne wrote psuedo-comedy such as Look Back in Anger that dripped with venom and bitterness in a very Kitchen Sink setting, Lucky Jim is not so moribund. At the end of the day, Dixon is simply having a Generation X crisis: his job is crushing his soul, his relationship is in the absolute doldrums, and he’s simply frustrated at how his life has turned out, and he’s never got enough money for drink and cigarettes. It’s no surprise that I really, really empathise with him. Admittedly, his main outlet for his frustrations is to play a variety of practical jokes on his loathsome flatmate and make faces (“Sex Life in Ancient Rome”) behind the backs of those who incompetence plagues his existence, but, hey, what else can he do as it’s very clear that he’s completely powerless and at the whims of those he finds to be inept and ridiculous (Welch, usually).
Dixon’s internal monologue is the main feature that makes Lucky Jim sparkle. The big set pieces are all downright hilarious in their own right, but it’s the internal stream of bitterness that really brings the laughs:
Nor did he, on the whole, now intend to tie Welch to a chair and beat him round the head and shoulders with a bottle until he disclosed why, without being French himself, he’d given both his sons French names.
Who hasn’t felt like this? Dixon hates the ineptitude and the inanities of the History Department. He hates the personal failings of Welch and family, and he despises that he’s allowed himself to get into this position where he’s so reliant on the whims of a man he clearly loathes, not to mention that he’s tied himself into a relationship with an emotionally manipulative drama-addicted psychotic.
Aside from Dixon, all the characters are supremely well drawn. Bertrand is the psueds psued, and Christine is a wonderful, attractive pragmatic female character. She’s a shining beacon of normality in an otherwise farcical cast of characters. Margaret is a bundle of neurosis wrapped in a ribbon of lunacy, and Mrs. Welch is a harridan with a severe attitude problem. As well drawn as all the characters are, the key pleasure is that they drive the absurdist events of the novel- Jim cocks up at the arty weekend, which leads to deception to attempt to cover it up, which in turn leads to future deceptions as more and more mistakes are made. Eventually, the original mistake (a minor one) has become a gigantic Augean stable of a mess, and Dixon needs the cataclysmic tsunami of the final act to wash the shit away.
This is a truly hilarious novel, and after reading it, it did introduce the word “cockchafer” into my vocabulary for a good year or so (I’m thinking about bringing this word back, actually). Dixon is admittedly an Amis surrogate, but he’s spouting the vitriol that the man himself felt, and many of us stuck in crap jobs working under inept and incompetent morons that disguise their lack of talent behind bullshit analytical models and an obsession with meaningless statistics also feel. When something as insignificant about your superior as a faintly ludicrous hat has become their key identifier for you, then you’re dangerously near Dixon territory.
Dixon territory is a bleak and hilariously angry place, and my only suggestion if you’re stuck there, like me, is to follow Jim’s advice yourself: do as little as possible, consume as much alcohol as you can reasonably take, vent your frustrations by making stupid faces behind their backs, and above all else stay Lucky, Jim.
Until next time,