Dan Sandman

14: Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

In Books, Comedy, Fiction, Romance on 03/04/2015 at 12:00 pm

Lucky Jim by Kingsly AmisJames Dixon works at an unnamed English university in the history department under Professor Welch. When Dixon is invited to an arty weekend at the Welch’s place, a series of comic incidents begin to occur that will mean Dixon must ride his luck – something that ‘Lucky Jim’ is actually quite good at. As Dixon gets tangled up by his own foolish behaviour, the comedy builds up to a crescendo.

Lucky Jim (1954) is a funny and skeptical book that sets Dixon’s questionable actions alongside the ironic tone of the narrator. A perfect example is the way in which a hangover is described at the start of chapter 6, following a night spent getting extremely drunk and setting fire to Mrs. Welch’s bedclothes.

‘He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning.’ (pg. 61)

This sentence not only sums up Dixon’s feelings of wickedness as he lays static with a terrible hangover, but it craftily combines a simile (‘like a broken spider-crab’) with a metaphor (‘the tarry shingle of the morning’). It is the humorous combination of the sprawled human body, juxtaposed to imagery taken from the natural world, that turns Dixon’s self-imposed misfortune into comedy. When such literary techniques – which commonly occur in poetry – are expertly used to bring humour and lushness to the prose, the result can be seriously funny and aesthetically pleasing.

I think that Amis was ahead of his time in many ways, and yet part of a funny-novel history reaching back to such eighteenth century delights as Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels) and Laurence Sterne (Tristram Shandy). My reasoning is that this sort of humour (part naturalistic / part situational) has often been seen in contemporary British and American television series (e.g. The Office / Curb Your Enthusiasm). On the one hand, we are encouraged to empathise with Dixon as he struggles with the pretensions and snobbery of university life; and on the other hand, the narrator turns Dixon into a selfish and dishonest fool. A good way to argue for and against Dixon as a human being would be to look at his relationship with Christine. Although Christine is clearly more suited to Dixon then she is to Bertrand, the way in which Dixon woos Christine involves selfishness and dishonesty. However, Christine doesn’t seem to mind his silly actions and actually finds them quite amusing. And it is only because she sees him for the flawed and pathetic creature he truly is, that Dixon allows himself to fall in love with her.

And love soon turns this comedy into a romance.

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