Reviewed by Heidi Boudro
My initial reaction to Lucky Jim (1953), by Kingsley Amis, was laughter. I found the novel really quite funny: the series of humiliations for Jim Dixon, who is a junior lecturer at a provincial British university; going from bad to worse; the snide voice of Jim's internal running commentary. My parents, who had seen the 1957 British film, laughed for decades afterwards about Jim's frustrations, the faces he made behind people's backs, the "Lucky Jim" song.
I was unprepared, though, for the flash of recognition for Jim's situation, which illuminated my own experience as a young adult.
Of course, Jim's specific situation is unique to him. His time and place are now so remote that some of the younger reviewers on Amazon found the culture of 1947 Britain to be entirely unintelligible. (They had been forced to read the novel in college classes; ironically, considering its theme.) Additionally, the questions raised of class, accent, and school are likely not particularly evident to Americans.
But, to summarize, Jim dislikes, even loathes, his supervising professor, his department, his specialization, the university as a whole, the arty and academic types, and his sort-of girlfriend. Meanwhile, completely trapped, or so he thinks, trying to somehow placate the people around him in order to keep his precarious teaching post. Agreeing and pretending to listen while desperately trying to entertain himself with furious and creative revenge fantasies, the making of faces (the angry peasant face, the Martian-invader face, the Sex Life in Ancient Rome face), and unfunny practical jokes.
The feeling of this certainly brought back aspects of my youth, from high school through late twenties. How I tuned out classes, assemblies, and religious services. The feigning of interest and enthusiasm with authority figures; the attempt to guess at what they, remotely, might want. Jobs and tasks that were known to all parties to be completely pointless. The punching of multiple buttons immediately before exiting an elevator. (As a courier, that opportunity often presented itself.) Eventually, when older, I got a more serious and glamorous job that was genuinely non-boring and lacked irony.
So, it was not bad to be older to read Lucky Jim. It helped to have more distance from a potentially cringe-inducing story. Now I can't tell, though, if the novel may have lost its edge over time, perhaps through the cultural disconnect mentioned above. It remains on Time magazine's list of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923.
Copyright © 2010 by Heidi Boudro