Book Review: “Lucky Jim” (1954) by Kingsley Amis

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Old Penguin book cover.

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This book tells the story of a middle class white man in his early thirties working as a lecturer on medieval literature who thinks he deserves a better job and a prettier girlfriend, but spends most of his time complaining and drinking instead of actually working for either of these things. Most of the novel is spent making silly faces, lying, avoiding his responsibilities, and playing immature pranks on the people he loathes. In the end, he gets his rewards without making much of an effort and walks off into the sunset, having learned nothing at all.

Yeah.

Lucky Jim has not aged well.

Before you all grab your pitchforks to defend “the finest, and funniest, comic novel of the twentieth century” (really?), let me just say: yes, I am aware that this is a satire. These characters are stereotypes, exaggerated cartoon versions of the people Amis himself encountered and loathed during his own university career. I get it. However, here is my main problem the book: we are supposed to sympathise with and root for the main character. Jim is supposed to be the little guy, the everyman who slowly gets the life choked out of him by the snobby establishment.

Except that I don’t buy it.

Jim is not the little guy – he’s a whiny, privileged tit. He is a lazy, judgmental coward who only chose medieval literature because it was “the soft option” and then complains that he’s stuck with a job he hates. Well, yes. That is what happens, you idiot. Instead of trying to turn things around and make something of his life, Jim spends his days getting away with doing as little work as possible, including avoiding the questions of students who do care and are actually trying to learn something.

I understand that Amis was trying to make a point about pretentiousness and how universities can get too wrapped up in their own egos and pointless arguments, but as someone who couldn’t find a Phd position in Comparative Literature two years ago because of severe budget cuts, I struggle to sympathise with this protagonist’s plight. Cry me a fucking river, Jim. It’s the 1950s and you’re an educated white male in the prime of his life – I’m sure you can just quit and get a different job on your way home. This book really rubbed me the wrong way, to the point where I found myself ranting about how Jim is not entitled to anything if he’s not willing to work for it and suddenly realised that I sounded like Old Economy Steven. It was a very dark moment in my life.

Jim is at his most sympathetic in his dealings with Margaret, his neurotic colleague and sort-of-girlfriend who he cannot break up with because he’s afraid that she will try to commit suicide again. There are moments when he shows sympathy for her and cares about what happens to her, but when a more beautiful woman shows up (the girlfriend of the guy he hates, of course), Amis needs to invent a way for Jim to get out of this relationship guiltfree. And surprise, surprise! It is conveniently revealed that Margaret’s previous suicide was faked and that she was just trying to trick Jim into staying with her. Bitches be crazy, am I right? Lucky, lucky Jim.

The writing was decent and I did chuckle once or twice at the jabs at how ridiculous working in the humanities can be, but overall, I feel that this story does not translate well for modern readers. As a time capsule, it can be an interesting read, but for me, the casual misogyny that was thrown at poor Margaret was just the final nail in the coffin. The comedy wasn’t as funny as I expected it to be, the morals are dubious at best… My advice: skip it. You’re really not missing out on much.

Incidentally, I own the Penguin Essentials edition with cover art by Luke Pearson, whose work I love, and his illustrations really tell you all you need to know about this story.

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That’s it, that’s the book.

There, I’ve just saved you a very frustrating weekend.

You’re welcome.


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4 thoughts on “Book Review: “Lucky Jim” (1954) by Kingsley Amis

  • August 13, 2015 at 3:51 am
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    It’s perfectly fine not to like a book, of course–if it’s not to your taste, or the subject matter doesn’t suit you, or for whatever reason it doesn’t speak to you. But you have condemned this book because you didn’t like the main character (which is bit like saying “Macbeth” is a terrible play because Macbeth is a terrible ruler; more apt, it would be akin to saying Vladimir Nabokov is a terrible writer because he created the evil Humbert Humbert).

    But the biggest sin of you review is that you’ve misread Jim Dixon entirely.

    He’s not an upper middle class white man. But for the War, he would not have gone to university at all. It was simply a new option for his generation (and a welcome one), and the rising demand for university education propelled many like Dixon into the ranks of the academy, a life for which many of them, like Dixon, were ill-suited. His plight is not that he’s in terrible job for which he should be thankful; his plight is that he’s in the wrong job entirely–which he manages, comically, to leave.

    Bertrand Welch is an upper middle class white man–and thoroughly despicable. Professor Welch is an upper middle class white man–and thoroughly ridiculous. Dixon is meant to be ridiculous, but also to be a counterpoint to the truly ridiculous (unlike Welch pere or fils, Dixon knows he’s ridiculous).

    This is why Somerset Maugham referred to Jim Dixon as “scum” in a review: He wrote, of Dixon and the like, “I am told that today rather more than 60 per cent of the men who go to university go on a Government grant. This is a new class that has entered upon the scene. It is the white-collar proletariat. They do not go to university to acquire culture but to get a job, and when they have got one, scamp it. They have no manners and are woefully unable to deal with any social predicament. Their idea of a celebration is to go to a public house and drink six beers. They are mean, malicious and envious. They are scum.”

    In other words, they don’t have the polish of the upper middle class, but his reading is closer to Amis’s conception of Dixon that your 21st century one.

    Moreover, even a cursory reading of the book indicates that unlike every other character, Jim Dixon actually grows a bit during the course of the narrative–rejecting his sham academic life and pursuing something else that offers more to him. He got lucky, yes, hence the title. Unlike every other main character, Dixon shows some fellow-feeling for the people who deserve it, including the hapless loser Margaret, even though he doesn’t like her very much. (Who, really, would you rather have a drink with? Dixon or Bertrand?)

    And finally, you tar the book with a broad brush because you’re jealous that Dixon got a job he didn’t want that is one you might imagine yourself eagerly accepting, with enthusiasm and glee. That is a poor excuse for criticism to be sure.

    Reply
    • August 13, 2015 at 9:01 am
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      I knew when I posted this review that I’d receive some flack for it – and I will admit it is a lot less polished than my usual pieces because I got a bit carried away on my rant. I did have this whole thing written out about the Angry Young Men, for example, but decided to leave it out in the end because I was in the middle of moving to a different apartment and preparing for a new job, and still had to squeeze in three book reviews somewhere (remember, I don’t write these reviews professionally, but for my own amusement, whenever I can find the time). I’m not trying to wiggle out of anything here, but it is why I didn’t touch upon certain issues that you have brought up here. It is also the reason why ‘upper middle class’ is still in the review – I did learn that it was a mistake as I was researching the novel, but forgot to edit it out (I have now changed it in the review).

      That said, despite the fact that you make some excellent points, I do want to defend myself against some of your accusations.

      I do not condemn this book just because I don’t like the main character. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned is full of awful people, but I still enjoyed it. An awful protagonist can still a fantastic creation and you already mentioned some other great examples. However, these stories usually acknowledge that these are awful people, and even though Lucky Jim does invite us to think that Dixon is pathetic too, I’d still argue that he functions as a kind of antihero we’re supposed to root for as he starts his small revolution against The System. I think he’s supposed to be sympathetic despite his flaws (a lovable cad, if you will) and we are supposed to feel satisfaction as he finds little outlets for his pent up frustration – except that I don’t.

      You’re right in saying that it’s a fish-out-of-water story where Dixon is struggling to function in a climate he should never have been a part of in the first place. This is why we are supposed to relate to him; we laugh with him more than we laugh at him (although, granted, we do that as well). Yes, Bertrand Welch is worse, but the fact that Dixon is aware of his own ridiculousness doesn’t excuse it. The fact that he is nicer to Margaret than other people and the fact that I would rather have a drink with him than with Professor Welch does mean he gets some points in my book, but the way he then goes about dealing with it all makes me want to take away those points again and slap him for good measure. If you are the only one who can see The System in all its awfulness, show me that you’re better and not just the lesser of two evils. Dixon doesn’t, and yet we are supposed to be happy for him when luck throws his dream job and his dream girl his way (the narrative demands it), but… No.

      In the end, Dixon “manages to leave,” but he could have looked for a new job and quit at any time. Instead, he avoids and deflects and acts out in what are ultimately pathetic ways until he is fired. Viva la revoluciĆ³n. I’m not impressed. Yes, Jim grows over the course of the narrative – a bit. Exactly like you said. He pursues a girl he likes, which shows that he can finally act instead of just mope in a bar somewhere, but other than this, has he actually learned anything of substance? I’m not so sure.

      I know that the fact that the ending comes down to luck and that Dixon didn’t actually work to deserve anything is part of the point (The System is broken, etcetera), but on an emotional level it is unsatisfactory – which is part of the point I get it I get it I get it I’ll get to that, but still. It also doesn’t excuse the whole Margaret storyline, which is highly dubious to say the least.

      And yes, the fact that I wanted the job Dixon has a few years ago did not help, but it was only the icing on the cake. If it had been any other job, I still would have said: so leave. Let someone else who is willing to put the work in change the system you hate so much from within. If you don’t want to be the one to do it, make room for those who will. Then again, it’s Dixon, so he is unlikely to take control in a constructive and dignified way. Scum, you say?

      In the end, this kind of “you’re all just brainwashed by The Man, man” story is just not my thing unless it gives me someone I actually want to root for -a mere pessimistic shrug and a drag of a cigarette is not enough for me. I want answers, solutions, at least a glimpse of an alternative on the horizon. I don’t want to believe that there is no point to it all, I fundamentally cannot accept that. Objectively, I don’t think Lucky Jim is badly written, not at all, but it does oppose so much of what I stand for that it left a bad taste in my mouth for days. How is that not a good reason to dislike a book?

      Reply
  • August 13, 2015 at 8:28 pm
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    I think it’s a perfectly valid reason for not liking a book (that it opposes something you stand for); it’s just not a particularly good reason for condemning the book and writing it off (you suggest to your readers that they shouldn’t even bother to read the book). My point is simply that the critiquing the subject of a novel or the morality of the characters should not devolve into judging the book (ergo: Why do people still read Lolita?).

    Amis shares a ton of traits with Dixon, but they are not the same person. Amis had a first from Oxford; he was by many accounts a very good professor before giving it up to write full time. He even liked it. Dixon is only like him in that both hate the Welches (in Amis’s case, the Welches are based on his first wife’s family), both like beer and girls, and both like making jokes. I just thought you went too far.

    Ta for the response!

    Reply
    • August 15, 2015 at 9:58 am
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      You’re right, of course, but as I mentioned in the review, even though I think the writing is solid enough, I didn’t think Lucky Jim was as funny as I expected it to (there was more frowning and sighing than laughter on my part). For me, the one or two chuckles it did manage to get out of me was not enough. A lot of the comedy comes from laughing at Jim’s fumblings, which I found more annoying than funny, and from the over the top characters, which just didn’t grab me most of the time because really Jim who are you to judge.

      Yes, it’s a matter of personal taste, but this is a personal review and not an academic essay. If I were to write a piece for university, I would have written an entirely different article, but this is just me telling people what I think and they can take it or leave it – or respectfully disagree in the comments. I always respect different opinions (even invite people to disagree with me, it’s been known to happen) and generally I encourage my readers to make up their own minds, but I do think that I have some idea of what the people who read my reviews are interested in (the more vocal ones anyway) and in this case, I feel safe in telling them that they would probably not enjoy this book. Still, they are welcome to try it out for themselves – hence the word “advice.”

      If you like Lucky Jim, I can see why you would, but it just doesn’t work for me – and that’s okay.

      Reply

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