Anatomy of a Book: Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

‘Flute and piano; not recorder and piano,’ Welch laughed briefly. ‘Now a recorder, you know, isn’t like a flute…’ (p.1)

In the introduction by David Lodge, Lucky Jim is described, and quoted, as being a classic comic novel that “changed a generation”. In describing it as a comedy, Lodge says it has a comic style, and presents comic situations.

Comedy in situation “involve the violation of a polite code of manners”. (Introduction by David Lodge.)

This is the problem with this novel. The breaking of manners, in the situations presented by Kingsley Amis, are not funny to a contemporary audience. They once were, but in the near hundred years since it was written, conundrums about whether a recorder is mistaken for a flute have been passed.

His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then its mausoleum. (p.61)

Never to be past use is great writing. Like with Shakespeare or Wodehouse, the use of language is what makes it a classic. The language used, the voice of the writer, this is the style Amis uses, and it is comic. It is what holds the reader, rather than the story.

‘So I’m naturally anxious to strike while the iron is hot, if you’ll pardon the expression.’
Why shouldn’t they pardon the expression? Dixon thought. Why?

Dixon is the lead character, and rather than voice displeasures or be decisive, he lets most events unfold, even if they are against his will. He only chooses to act in minor matters, and this might be true to character, but in modern stories a lead that does not have direction is considered not captivating.

So today, when writing and reading we look for situations with greater repercussions, and engaging characters with more in jeopardy. But still, Lucky Jim follows most rules of a novel.

Changing Status:
Jim Dixon doesn’t know where he wants to be, he only knows that he wants to be doing very little of what he is actually doing. His life does change, but it is arguable that his self-belief does not. Therefore despite superficial change, he does not change, and his personal status remains the same.

The Worst:
The threat of being found out for some of his lies and actions creates some tension for Dixon. The disappointment is that some of this does not eventuate, as matters that might be dealt with by furious meetings, are presented instead as tersely worded letters. This might be in keeping with the characters of the time, and the formality and conflict resistance of the period, but in modern writing the meeting must be held, as the drama would be higher.

High Stakes:
So by not confronting Dixon to some of the drama, the impact of events feels low. For example, Dixon has a job he doesn’t like. Therefore the threat of losing his job is minor to him. In this sense, character confidence and personal status are not threatened. This is again evidence to why the book relies on good use of language.

Believable Characters:
As outlined above, actions taken by characters are in keeping with their society and personality. This might make the book dull, compared to how it would be written today, but also believable. Few characters fall into blandness, though the character of Bertrand does, as he does not change emotion much.

Time Pressure:
The best periods of this book are those where events happen rapidly. Considering the various situations in this book, it does seem to unfold in a matter of days, when in a timeline it is probably a couple of months. One piece of note, for its contradiction, is near the end, were tension is built and then story slowed down for Amis to insert a series of comic events. This is frustrating, as it chances the pace of the read and positions comedy at the one time it is unwelcome.

At its time Lucky Jim was borderline controversial. It is a story involving University lectures and staff, and the intellectual society around them. Nobody else had used this setting or characters for comedy before, so here a barrier was broken, and does change the way a generation looks at the world.


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