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Lucky Jim – Andy finally gets around to the other Amis

March 20, 2013

… and is very pleasantly surprised.

My lit lecturer (one of them) hated Kingsley Amis. Also Patrick White. Loved, however, Martin Amis and Tim Winton. Martin is obviously the son of Kingsley, and some may argue that Tim’s obsessions with the land and spirituality make him one of Patrick’s literary heirs. My lecturer was right about Martin and Tim (although both disappointed with the last things of theirs that I read) but he was wrong about Patrick and, on the basis of Lucky Jim, he was wrong about Kingsley, too.

lucky-jimLucky Jim is a thoroughly enjoyable novel. I’m not sure that it’s “about” much more than being a disengaged, unfulfilled young person in a hateful job that results in nothing but the desire to be drunk and chase skirt. Although that’s possibly a pretty good range of stuff for a novel to be “about”. Dissatisfaction with the vagaries of existence, with the lack of fulfillment life seems to offer, with the inability to connect with most if not all of the people around us? Yup. That’s probably a bit for a novel to be about.

But before Lucky Jim is a novel “about” stuff, it’s a comedy. And it is funny. It is very, very funny. The devil may well be in the detail but so are the laughs. Amis writes about medieval recorder music and he makes it funny. He writes about the machinations of a third-rate university and he makes it funny. He makes the subtleties of mid-century English middle-class snobbery funny. He makes cultural snobbery funny. He makes drunkenness funny. He makes being horny funny. Some of these things are easier than others to make funny. Amis makes all of them funny, sometimes a handful of them all at the same time.

The titular Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon – is a terrific creation. Perhaps not great, perhaps not a creation of genius, but certainly huge fun. Scornful, sarcastic, self-destructive; randy, realistic, rancid. Like most insecure people he’s also hugely arrogant; and like many people in unrewarding relationships he quite swiftly finds someone else to pique his interest.

There’s plenty about this novel that is utterly convincing, and Dixon’s seesawing self-confidence and self-loathing  lie at its centre. Unfortunately Amis loses control of his material a little towards the end. For most of its length this novel has a level of suspense to strengthen it as well; will Jim fall on his feet or will he meet the fate Evelyn Waugh, perhaps, might’ve doled out for him? Amis’s conclusion is ultimately a little twee and a little contrived; also, it’s outrageously sexist, which is a pity because for the most part Amis, to my thinking anyway, avoided the sexist pitfalls some of his contemporaries fell for. The book’s rewards are undermined by the shortcuts ethical and narrative, that Amis takes to get to his rather too snappy conclusion.

But I might be stretching for that criticism. Overall Lucky Jim is engrossing and wildly amusing. And even if Jim’s not a terribly nice person, or even all that sympathetic, his range of facial expressions will probably see you practising in the mirror. Seriously.

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