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.
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.
That’s it, that’s the book.
There, I’ve just saved you a very frustrating weekend.