Friday, February 15, 2008

The Weekly Shelf Talker: Lucky Jim

This is the first in what will hopefully be a long-running series of recommendations from Vroman's booksellers. This is a chance to discover new books that may have slipped past you, or to rediscover a classic you haven't thought about since high school. Think of them as internet versions of the "recommended reads" cards you see hanging from your local independent bookstore. The first in the series is by your's truly, and it is about Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim:

Roughly a quarter of the way through Lucky Jim is the single greatest description of a hangover ever penned:
"The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he'd somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad."
Paragraphs like this abound in this perfect, slender novel by one of the 20th century's great writers, but I dare say this isn't the reason I love this book so much. There's something about the protagonist, the hapless, put-upon Jim Dixon, that I find to be so close to home. This probably isn't a good thing, since Dixon, as he's called throughout the book, isn't a particularly good person. Indeed, if this novel had been forced at its publication to squeeze past the phalanx of Amazon reviewers, with their demands for sympathetic characters and uplifting stories, I doubt it would have found the audience it did (As it is, the Amazon critics tend to approve of the book, although a few people just don't "get it").

Dixon is a newly minted associate professor at a small college in postwar England, where he relates to his students with equal parts disinterest and disdain (except, of course, for the attractive female students) and to his bore of a boss with unequivocal and yet always silent hatred. Nobody describes faces better than Amis, who lets Dixon's features tell the story of his agony:
"Mentally, however, he was making a different face and promising himself he'd make it actually when next alone. He'd draw his lower lip in under his top teeth and by degrees retract his chin as far as possible, all this while dilating his eyes and nostrils. By these means he would, he was confident, cause a deep dangerous flush to suffuse his face."
The story begins when Dixon's phenomenally boring superior Welch invites him to his country home for the weekend. There Dixon drunkenly incinerates his bedclothes, develops an instantaneous blood feud with Welch's son Bertrand, and falls for Bertrand's girl Christine.

Considering that Lucky Jim is a relatively short comic novel, its plot is remarkably complicated, the work of a master storyteller as well as humorist. Amis shoves Dixon into so many traps, humiliates him in so many ways, that one inevitably feels Dixon's anger mounting steadily and incessantly. It's Dixon's hatred -- hatred for his surroundings, his station, and ultimately, I think, himself -- that gives the book its undeniable charm. From the opening paragraph, when forced, along with Dixon, to listen to the welterweight champion of boring speeches, the reader is with him, warts and all.

And Dixon has his share of warts. For a professor, he's not much of an academic. He's been struggling for some time now with an essay entitled "The Economic Influence of the Developments of Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450-1485." As Christopher Hitchens points out in his stellar Atlantic review of the book, Dixon's failure to engage with the very subject matter he's chosen to study is "Hilarious, but somewhat sobering." I laugh at the absurdity of Dixon's essay, his miserable life's work, but then I remember what I've been doing for the last eight hours, and suddenly, it's not so funny. And this, for me, is the key to Lucky Jim. The more Dixon struggles with his position in life, the more I find myself staring back at me. And I don't think I'm alone. How many people can see themselves in the following paragraph, arguably the funniest in the book:
"If Welch didn't speak in the next five seconds, he'd do something to get himself flung out without question -- not the things he'd often dreamed of when sitting next door pretending to work. He no longer wanted, for example, to inscribe on the departmental timetable a short account, well tricked-out with obscenities, of his views on the Professor of History, the Department of History, medieval history, history, and Margaret and hang it out of the window for the information of passing students and lecturers, nor did he, on the whole, now intend to tie Welch up in his chair and beat him about the head and shoulders with a bottle until he disclosed why, without being French himself, he'd given his sons French names, nor..."
What I see when I read this passage is a man trapped by his own inability to change his life. The anger, the sheer bile of this passage makes me laugh, but the helplessness underlying it all makes it a slightly uneasy laugh. The pleasure of Lucky Jim lies in watching Dixon rise up against his oppressors -- the college, the department, his superiors -- and eventually conquering them all, in a way.

Lucky Jim is the one book I have to stop myself from rereading over and over again. It's my favorite book, and one that I recommend to anyone who can take a joke. It won't take you three days to read it. Why not try it this weekend?

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At 1:06 PM, Anonymous judy krueger said...

I loved running across your post on Lucky Jim. I recently finished it; it was a new discovery for me; I loved it for many of the same reasons you cited.
Please keep up this series of posts.

At 7:46 AM, Anonymous Robert Peters, Aachen, Germany said...

I am afraid I have to disagree. The book reminds me of a very long-winded joke told in very old-fashioned manner by a guy who thinks he is very funny - but sadly isn't. There is not one scene in the book that made me laugh but a lot of scenes which made me yawn since there are told with such a blatant lack of narrative expertise. I think the knack is that the hero is such an uninteresting character that I simply couldn't care for him. If this is Amis's best book I don't want to read the lesser ones. And believe me: I am a sucker for books by British authors. Well, my favourite author is Iris Murdoch - she and Amis are surely worlds apart, in any respect.


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