book-reviews

Lucky Jim

by Kingsley Amis

Rating: ★★★

Probably fractionally better than I'm rating it. Amis passes the iron test of comedy -- the book was funny -- but he does this with such alien and confusing accompaniment that it's hard to know what to make of it at times.

Our characters are mostly relatively limited in dimension, as befits the scope of the novel, but nonetheless quite hard to get a handle on. All the women (bar Carol, the sane one that isn't a love interest) continually say things they don't mean and flip-flop between telling the main character (Dixon) to piss off one moment and then inelegantly chasing him around on some pretext or other. They don't seem to mind his obvious drinking problem or compulsive lying. Dixon's friends, if you can call them such, are quite happy to support him in various quite childish and complex schemes, but approach ordinary conversation as if just returning from exile in the desert. The only one that rang true for me was Welch, the evasively absentminded yet civil professor.

Dixon himself was extraordinarily weird, and I think only the fact that he is the main character could obscure this. Leaving aside his tormented relationships, his significant alcoholism, his crazed efforts with the telephone system, and the question of why he ended up lecturing at a university in a subject he has no interest in, he is just very physically strange. Amis constantly describes him as pulling faces, gurning, gibbering, waggling his fingers and jumping up and down -- not as occasional exuberances or unconscious reactions, but as deliberate actions while he is alone, often undertaken for no apparent reason, as though this behaviour makes perfect sense. I really was mystified by this element of the book -- my only tentative explanation is that this is a written rendition of some Carry On-style comedy that misses me by a mile.

There were a number of points where I felt a gap between myself and the reader Amis intended. For instance, there was a scene in the bedroom of his not-quite-girlfriend Margaret. She has invited him in after catching him returning drunk from the pub, they start talking and it devolves into (encouraged) petting and then:

He withdrew his hand, then put it back, this time under her nightdress. This, and the shudder she gave, made his head reel the furthest yet; too far, indeed, for him to do any more thinking. The silence roared in his ears.

Some short time later, as they lay on the bed, he made a movement not only quite unambiguous, but even, perhaps, rather insolently frank.

(She then kicks him out quite violently). Now, to my reading, the end of that first paragraph, with the escalation to under-the-clothes contact and then a written fade-to-black shaded with 'not thinking', followed by 'Some short time later' opening the next paragraph, all gives the impression that they just had offscreen sex, all leading me to wonder what the hell sort of movement he could've made after the fact which would cause her to kick him out with such outrage.

It turns out my reading was rather more presumptuous than Amis intended -- this is the 1950s after all -- and the movement that got Dixon tossed out was something more directly suggestive of "let's do it" than slipping his hand under her nighty. They were in fact meant to be still clothed in the second paragraph, rather than slumping down from a bit of tastefully-elided action. I've banged on about this for so long because it took me a long while to figure out what had happened here, simply because the difference in understanding between Amis and I was so great. A few of the seemingly directionless conversations probably suffered from similar translation problems.

It was nevertheless mostly pretty funny. Amis captures a lot of repressed rage at everyday indignities, and makes excellent use of Welch, particularly with the library skit. It is apparently also meant to capture something about class struggle, which becomes most obvious when Dixon (lippy northerner) and Bertrand (odious toff) go at each other, but I'm not sure what analogies are really to be drawn. Dixon nearly concludes by thinking that Welch Sr. isn't all that bad, but then he laughs uproariously at the whole family because the father and son swap hats. No doubt that's deeply symbolic, quite possibly of mental illness amongst the working class.