Posted by: zhiv | February 27, 2010

Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis

This book is well-known as the great Academic Novel, and it’s clearly the founding text of the satirical version of the category. I aimed towards it after reading Richard Russo’s Straight Man, where his detached and bumbling hero is referred to as “Lucky Hank” a number of times. Lucky Jim is a book that I meant to read a long time ago, and I was very happy to have a reminder and such a strong prompt. But as I was peeking around in this neck in the woods and doing some advance scouting, I saw it mentioned somewhere that the book is overrated. I’m so ridiculously suggestible that this put my skepticism on alert, and I had a hard time getting into the book, and read it poorly, in small scattered bits, lacking enthusiasm and spending both not enough and too much time on it.

In the end I liked it fine, and enjoyed it even more than that for personal reasons that I’ll get to in a moment. It’s an easy and fun book that indeed should be gulped down quickly. The style is rather deep 50s Brit for an American 21st century reader, but it’s easy enough to find your bearings if you make the effort and pay attention (I didn’t; my bad). My guess is that the overrated charge comes from its inclusion in the group of Angry Young Man postwar texts, as something new and socially important, with a dash of comic war-weary existentialism, making a clear statement that everything in the world had changed. Deeper meanings can be read into the book, but it seems like something of a shame to do so, rather than enjoying the fun. Read backwards from the string of relatively apolitical academic satires that have followed in its wake, it’s quite solid and unobjectionable, a bit on the small side and contained. Lucky Jim certainly seems to take more cues from P.G. Wodehouse than it does from Camus, Celine or Sartre.

It certainly has a new setting and hero, at least as far as I know. According to expert accomplished Academic Novelist David Lodge, in his introduction, it apparently followed the novels of student life at Oxbridge between the wars. I’ve never read Brideshead Revisited, but my guess it that it’s the prime exemplar of this group, and I’d like to see a list. Instead Lucky Jim is set at a generic “red brick” university, and it has a carefully expressed cynicism about the efficacy of university education for the masses. It’s interesting to compare Amis’s 50s setting to Russo’s rustbelt state university of the 90s, or Lodge’s update of the British version. I haven’t really thought about Lodge’s books in a long while, but I had great fun reading them as they appeared, and it’s easy enough to see how deeply they were influenced by Lucky Jim as a seminal work. Lodge’s secret may have been to celebrate the pure comedy while removing some of the abundant face-pulling and lingering Wodehouse air, while setting aside the social and political agenda as much as possible, but I don’t remember clearly enough to say–there might have been a political element that I’m forgetting, and his characters seem to actually care about literature.

As far as the main character in Lucky Jim goes, he certainly must have seemed to be quite the New Man in this new setting, unmoored and stumbling along in a classic, drunken manner. One can understand how larger concerns and ideas could have easily been attached to him. It’s funny to think about tracking the evolution of characters who don’t give a shit, and the different branches they move into as they multiply. The earlier versions are rich people and gentlemen (Wodehouse and Waugh), and the Core Philosophy of the gentry, to do nothing gracefully, goes back to the beginnings of the novel and its basic comic structure. But the world of the middle and working class is meant to be serious and challenging and filled with ambition. The contrast between the classes and the post-Great War struggles of Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway come to mind as a strong example. These are wild shots fired from the hip and there must be all sorts of more coherent citations, but the idea of an unheroic war veteran, a simple survivor from a nondescript family, with no prospects or real ambition, wondering if he might make a career in the blindly burgeoning academic world must have been a radically new concept.

And there really is a strong statement about the expansion of education and the the role of veterans in a swiftly changing, new society in this book. It reminds us, reading it more than a half-century later in a country that faces some major educational challenges, once again of the way that the industrialized bureaucracy created by the war (only “enlightened fascism” could beat the fascists) was translated onto American society, at least, and it probably worked that way in England to a degree as well. The GI Bill was an “education surge” that professionalized thousands of soldiers and conscripts, and it created the expansion of the thriving industry of Higher Education. Jim Dixon was a sufficiently successful soldier–we don’t need to know much about his service–because he was able to master the basic training of navigating the wartime bureaucracy. His academic method and effort, in a fascinating way, is nothing more than the most basic expansion and adaptation of the same rudimentary navigational skill. It is completely devoid of meaning or purpose. And in “getting up” his materials, Dixon (never called Lucky Jim in the book, as Lodge points out) is performing only a mindless bureaucratic task, trying to maintain his position with the absolute minimal effort. I’m reminded of Frank Wheeler in Revolutionary Road (because of my Yates tick) working at Knox Business Machines and “working up” instructional materials, and the anonymous man in the gray flannel suit, which became the war vet’s new uniform. The only thing that gets in the way of getting by for these detached and quietly desperate characters is their own humanity. It starts with a strong thirst for alcohol, which seems to intensify their self-destructive tendencies. Ah, the 50s. Good times.

I didn’t expect to go so deeply into the social subtext of the book, but it’s easy enough, and I meant to keep it simple and appreciate the comedy and the fun. But the best thing about the book for me, and the thing that caused a surprising and strong attachment, is the fact and the way that Jim Dixon gets out, how he manages to escape the academic world. It’s much harder than one might think, and Lucky Jim and Straight Man and Stoner and other Academic Novels have a darker side as they trace the insidious attraction and even penitentiary aspects of the academic world. It’s not just that it somehow sucks you in, as the problem is that it toys with and torments you and never lets you go. It’s an absurd, insane funhouse (John Barth) and hall of mirrors, grinding down its well-intentioned (or neutral) denizens like river rocks over the course of years and decades. The genius of Jim is that he follows his heart, he turns out to be romantic, with all of his drinking and hilarious obfuscations and miscues, and he manages to mess things up enough to get spit out. This turns out to be his great good fortune, and Lucky Jim ends up with the girl, the job, and the life in London, everything he wanted and dreamed about. It’s so well-played that you might almost think he had a plan, but in fact his only plan was not to have one.

My own world of bizarre Hollywood posturings is no better and much worse and more insidious in its way–imagine if Jim Dixon managed to escape academics only to land in the film business, which is a rather obvious sequel. In my own slow-moving crisis in the midst of what is supposed to be the proverbial fast lane, I have a strong tendency to idealize the world of literature, readers, books, students and teachers, and I think about finishing up here at the studio and making a graceful transition to the classroom. So I forget that I was a wildly poor excuse for an academic and a scholar back when I was trying out that role as an amateur. I was, it must be said, crafting an uncanny impersonation of Jim Dixon, stumbling forward and barely hanging on, getting in scrapes and finding strange and twisted ways to get out of them. This book helped me immensely to recall the dark and absurd side of my own comic academic progress. I was obnoxious enough that the machine spit me out, and this book helped me realize and remember that I might be one of the lucky ones.

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Responses

  1. Interesting stuff! I read Lucky Jim a while back and didn’t love it — it felt dated, and it also felt cold. But my memories are vague. It’s pretty hostile toward women, too, right? Or am I remembering incorrectly? Have you read Jane Smiley’s Moo? I can’t remember, but if you haven’t, it might be a place to go next.

    There’s so much more going on in Brideshead than Oxford, but it does have a great description of student life.

  2. DW — good note. I don’t know if dated is quite the right term, as it’s more than 50 years old, but there may be something to the idea of combining of-its- time/cold/misogynistic. Norman Mailer isn’t so different, amongst many others, and this book seemed to be trying to figure out postwar male identity in an absurd, unexpected academic setting, and it predates deeper concerns about female characterization. Which isn’t an excuse. I don’t think the flaw is with Margaret, who is neurotic and challenging and complex, but instead with Christine, a rather flimsy heroine at the end, pretty, clubbable, not out to make him miserable.

    I really need to read Brideshead at some point, but I don’t think I’ll get there soon. Moo is intriguing. I went through a major Jane Smiley push, years ago, but it didn’t last through Moo. Now I have a great reason to read it (and her) again; she was a real fave. Have you read Greenlanders? That book was amazing. Next stop for me on this jaunt should be MMcCarthy’s Groves of Academe, and I think there’s one more academic novel I want to read that I can’t remember. Then Moo. Thanks for stopping by, as always.

  3. […] before Kingsley Amis turned the brand new sub-genre on its head and wrote a classic outsider novel, Lucky Jim (1954), within its stately confines. The fact that the genre was so perfectly suited to satire, and […]


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