Sunday, July 24, 2011

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

Christopher Hitchens once called Lucky Jim the funniest novel of the second half of the twentieth century. I don't think I can agree with that assessment--in fact, I would give my vote to Amis fils' novel Money, or maybe A Confederacy of Dunces--but I can understand the sentiment. The savagery of its satire, and its send-up of the British academic universe, are exactly what I would expect would make Hitchens laugh. It does contain what I think is probably the best description of a hangover ever written:

Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. 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.

He will feel worse, when he discovers that he has burned a hole in the sheets of his host, Professor Welch, who happens to be the Dean of History at the provincial college where Dixon is a lecturer in history. Dixon's job is in danger--for other similar unintentional shenanigans--and his attempts to ingratiate himself to Welch are complicated by the fact that Welch is an insufferable blowhard, and so is his son, the painting Bertrand:

It was Bertrand who won the little contest. "The point is that the rich play an essential role in modern society," he said, his voice baying a little more noticeably. "More than ever in days like these. That's all; I'm not going to bore you with the stock platitudes about their having kept the arts going, and so on. The very fact that they are stock platitudes proves my case. And I happen to like the arts, you sam."

The last word, a version of "see," was Bertrand's own coinage. It arose as follows: the vowel sound became distorted into a short "a," as if he were going to say "sat." This brought his lips some way apart, and the effect of their rapid closure was to end the syllable with a light but audible "m." After working this out, Dixon could think of little to say, and contented himself with "You do," which he tried to make knowing and sceptical.

That's pretty funny, and it's funnier when Amis begins to slip this tic in elsewhere; at one point, Bertrand uses the word "obviouslam." To make matters worse, Bertrand has a very pretty girlfriend--blowhards often do--named Christine, who seems to fancy Dixon, though he himself is tied up with a manipulative and not very attractive girl named Margaret.

Much of the best comedic bits in Lucky Jim depict Dixon trying to navigate his precarious social and professional situation, and sometimes just pursuing sheer malice, through a series of pranks and tricks. He hides the sheets; he calls the Welch home pretending to be a reporter looking for Betrand; he writes a threatening letter to a rival pretending to be someone else. This is funnier because he isn't good at it, and is always being found out. The mockery quickly becomes something of a compulsion, reaching a disastrous head when Dixon, intoxicated, can't stop himself from delivering a public lecture while mimicking Welch:

When he'd spoken about half-a-dozen sentences, Dixon realixed that something was still very wrong. The murmuring in the gallery had grown a little louder. Then he realised what it was that was so wrong: he'd gone on using Welch's manner of address. In an effort to make his script sound spontaneous, he'd inserted an "of course" here, a "you see" there, an "as you might call it" somewhere else; nothing so firmly recalled Welch as that sort of thing. Further, in a partly unconscious attempt to make the stuff sound right, i.e. acceptable to Welch, he'd brought in a number of favourite Welch tages: "integration of the social consciousness," "identification of work with craft," and so on... Sweating and flushing, he struggled on a little further, hearing Welch's intonation clinging tightly round his voice, powerless for the moment to strip it away.

Ultimately, Dixon is only able to continue by mimicking someone else, and passes through a number of different voices before collapsing on stage. To some extent this is what Dixon deserves, not because he is a trickster but because he is as much a sham as anyone else. His recently finished article, "The economic influence of the development in shipbuilding techniques, 1450 to 1485," bores him to death, and was only written to please his superiors and lead the expected life of an academic:

Dixon had read, or begun to read, dozens like it, but his own seemed worse than most in its air of being convinced of its own uselessness and significance. "In considering this strangely neglected topic," it began. This what neglected topic? This strangely what topic? This strangely neglected what? His thinking all this without having defiled and set fire to the typescript only made him appear to himself as more of a hypocrite and fool.

Being a comedy, things will work out for Dixon. But it isn't at all clear to me that he deserves them, except perhaps in that he seems to know he is a sham, which is something Professor and Bertrand Welch refuse to admit. But the title suggests that maybe deserving the girl, the job, etc., is irrelevant:

It was all very bad luck on Margaret, and probably derived, as he'd thought before, from the anterior bad luck of being sexually unattractive. Christine's more normal, i.e. less unworkable, character no doubt resulted, in part at any rate, from having been lucky with her face and figure. But that was simply that. To write things down as luck wasn't the same as writing them off as nonexistent or in some way beneath consideration. Christine was still nicer and prettier than Margaret, and all the deductions that could be drawn from that fat should be drawn: there was no end to the ways in which nice things are nicer than nasty ones.

This is an interesting statement, and a troubling one, though it forms the lynchpin of the novel's serious treatment of moral questions. How then, do we revise our understanding of the luck that has enabled someone like Bertrand Welch to become a privileged, leisurely artist? As Hitchens notes, Dixon avers that "he badly needed another dose of luck. If it came, he might yet prove to be of use to somebody." The lucky Welches have spent their lives being useless to precisely no one--that's why they're academics, har har--and Amis leaves us with the suggestion that maybe Dixon, lucky for the first time in his life, might be able to make better use of it.

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