Book review: Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis


the cover of the book

If this was fused with a grim, dystopian sci-fi blockbuster in some of Godawful teleporter accident it would be the film 'Brazil'.

Cover

Text only. Old edition. Says, right on the cover; "The popular book by Kingsley Amis", a recommendation so British-ly careful as to be quite endearing, albeit not visually.

Plot

Jim is heading for thirty. He lectures in Medieval Studies (which he has little interest in) at a small University in rural England. He is surrounded by colleagues who bore him witless and enmeshed in a frustrating, nebulous relationship with his boss' daughter, who is a melodramatic pain in the arse. He drinks too much, smokes too much, and is almost broke almost all of the time. Basically, Jim is having his mid-life crisis half way through his twenties, which, given that this was written in the early fifties, puts him several generations ahead of the pack. It's not doing him any good, though; he's lonely, bored, his outlook alternates between suburban guilt and silent, impotent fury, and, worst of all, as he has no idea what he wants to do with his life, it's almost impossible for him to conceive of an escape.

When the beautiful ex-partner of his boss' obnoxious son shows a twinkle of interest in Jim, it brings a momentary light into his life. But girls like that don't go for guys like Jim, and he knows it, just as he knows he'll be stuck in this one-horse burg forever.

The good

Lucky Jim taps into a now-universal theme, that's for sure. I'm not sure if exploring mid-twenties middle-class anomie in 1953 puts this ahead of its time, but doing it in such an honest, punchy, funny way certainly puts it ahead of the pack; the sooner Zach Braff reads this, the sooner he can stop with his affectedly earnest feinting at the heart of post-adolescent ennui, safe in the knowledge that somebody else nailed it fifty years ago. It's less self-indulgent than it sounds, too - Jim may hate his education and his job but at least he's got one; he may be a listless twenty-something but he's a listless twenty-something who's already been to war (and doesn't think it's an experience worth talking about). In short, Jim's problems differ from his modern peers primarily in that he considers his yearnings for a better life to be the error, rather than the presently more common belief that one's dreams are the only things that matter and it's one's reality which is at fault.

This sense of exasperated, pointless yearning adds further depth to the book's central theme by subtly introducing the element of class. Though much more prevalent a matter in British society fifty years ago, class and Jim never clash head-on. It is nonetheless a struggle and the symptoms of the struggle are all the more dramatic for it being unspoken. Beneath Jim's furious lack of faith in his own attempts to resign himself to a life he's supposed to deserve lies his genuine belief that there are some things beneath him and a whole bunch more to which he must never aspire. This also rings true today although at present, again, the belief is more common in inverse proportions. Look, you know Fawlty Towers, right? We can identify with Basil's crushing sensation of everyday impotence, yet there is also something fundamentally, tacitly British about the tailoring of the straitjacket, if you see what I mean. This allows the audience to empathise with the heart of the character while contrasting this closeness with the details of distance in time and place. You could argue that this pleasure of place and period is unintentional and thus should have no bearing on literature but the fact is that A- it does, whether we like it or not, and B- without a time machine, there is no other way for us to experience literature.

What I'm trying to get at is that, in Jim, Amis has built something deeply true. Like all great art he has preserved a moment in time, but here the external chronology (ie fifties Britain) is overshadowed by the capture of the internal, which is to say the Western male in his mid-twenties, angry, confused, inconvenienced with intelligence. Both Amis' achievements affect the other, but it is the latter which is the lasting glory.

A part of the truth, of course, is that young, intelligent people with too much energy tend to be funny, both in how they purposefully act and the involuntary situations where their half-cooked intentions (plus beer) will land them. Lucky Jim is still bloody funny, in short. Jim's dammed-in fury at his worthless life finds all sorts of dyke-holes to burst forth from. He gurns at his boss behind his back, uses silly voices on the telephone, gets drunk at inappropriate times, treats the opposite sex schizophrenically, spends his last fifty cents on beer and so on. He's much less like Bridget Jones than I've just made him sound, but still funny. Amis has a way of insinuating the reader's presence into a scene, so what begins as, for instance, Jim's invitation to his boss' house for a tedious-sounding weekend of music recital soon becomes a hilariously, awfully familiar orchestra of deceit, faux pas and small victories snatched from the pit before the inevitable crashing crescendo leaves us longing for nothing more than a magic portal to the safe dusty darkness under the bed at home.

Bugger it, I knew this one would be hard to flavour.

The bad

The worst thing I can say about this book is that it inspired me to look up more Kingsley Amis, and I lucked out amongst the Freo library's limited selection with one of his newer books, "Russian Girl", published in 1991. What a difference four decades make. Gone is the fire, the frustration, the flesh, and the empathy. Cold, emotionally nebulous upper-middle-class academics sit around in living rooms like bad midday TV show sets having conversations which are either totally implausible or else (frighteningly) based on some middle-aged suburban lifestyle to which dear Lord may I never become accustomed, even if it means playing video games alone for the next twenty years. I returned it after five chapters. The angry young man was a cold old fish.

Now, I am prepared to accept that I was unlucky in my selection, and that Amis wrote many other fine books, but, somehow, I doubt they could approach Lucky Jim, because it's ferociously everyday style (which I have had such difficulty capturing) belongs, I think, to the age of the author and his leading man. If you are this age yourself, then I recommend it highly. Like Catch-22 and Breakfast of Champions this is a mid-twentieth-century humour classic which hasn't lost its laughter half a century on. Call it satire if it makes you feel better, have a laugh, have a wince, and try and imagine who of this decade's authors will still be funny in 2057.

What I learnt

In 1953, the acknowledged cure for female hysterical behaviour was still a good hard slapping and a big stiff drink.



In short

Title: Lucky Jim
Author: Kingsley Amis
Publisher: Penguin Classics
ISBN: 0140186301
Year published: 1993
Pages: 272
Genre(s): Fiction, Humour, Literature

Re:

Thank you for the review, I will definitely read this book. I ordered it in Amazone and it will come in a couple of weeks. Basically, I always read book reviews before buying a book. They help me find out whether the book is worth reading. :)