Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (read in 2015)
Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.
This book combines the stultifying mundanity of day-to-day drudgery of Confederacy of Dunces with the whining tone of Holden Caulfield from the Catcher in the Rye. The prose is a bit stiff for my tastes and Amis seems, to me, a bit overrated.
The middle bits, which involve Dixon’s quasi-dalliance with Christine, are more evocative. The book has that feeling of lifting slowly but seemingly inexorably from a quagmire of boredom, stretching, stretching, with what one feels might perhaps be interpreted as acceleration, a feeling that one would soon snap free of gummy strands that yet cling and tie one to the tedium. But alas this feeling is fleeting—as you knew in your heart of cynical hearts that it probably would be—as the gummy strands win more battles and eventually the war and you sink back into that tepid morass with nary a change for all that you saw when you briefly, if not soared, perhaps one could describe it generously as … flew.
It’s as if Dixon is trapped in the miasma of Welch, as a prehistoric fly when first it steps in amber and the honeyed fluid hasn’t quite seeped into every last receptor of its compound eye. This book documents the struggles of that fly. In fairness, the fly in this case doesn’t struggle so much as complain that the vitrification process isn’t going quickly enough and that the other flies should just go about their business and stop bothering it.
The style and subject matter is, at times, quite strongly reminiscent of The Idiot or The Brothers Karamazov, but perhaps that is only because those books also dealt with idiotic families in quasi-boring situations that never come to any strong conclusions. The ending is a bit of a surprise, tying things up in a far neater bow than I’d have expected. Was this done because the author wanted his hero to semi-triumph? Or was it an ironic stab at books with happy endings? Is it a happy ending to see Dixon stumble further along the road to success? Was he the hero? Or was he just relatively less-insufferable, rising above the others by dint of their utter awfulness rather than any positive qualities of his own? All in all, it was an interesting read, but as for it being the finest comic novel of the 20th century: no. Not even among British authors. Just, no.
“Until then he must try to make Welch like him, and one way of doing that was, he supposed, to be present and conscious while Welch talked about concerts. But did Welch notice who else was there while he talked, and if he noticed did he remember, and if he remembered would it affect such thoughts as he had already?”
'What’s this, Alrfred?’ Dixon asked. ‘A bender?’
Beesley nodded without stopping drinking; then, lowering his glass at last, wiping his mouth on his sleeve, making a face, and referring to the quality of the beer by a monosyllable not in decent use, he said: ‘I wasn’t getting anywhere in there, so I came in here and came over here.‘
‘And you’re getting somewhere over here, are you, Alfred?’ Carol asked.
‘On the tenth half, just about,’ Beesley said.
‘Bloody but unbowed, eh? That’s the spirit. […]’
“This time he experienced nothing worse than a small rage at the thought of a little louse like that having a flat in London. Why hadn’t he himself had parents whose money so far exceeded their sense as to install their son in London? The very thought it was a torment. If he’d had that chance, things would be very different for him now. For a moment, he thought he couldn’t think what things; then he found he could conceive the things exactly, and exactly how they’d differ from the things he’d got, too.”
“A youthful waiter had approached, his footfalls silenced by the carpet, and was now shifting from one foot to the other close by, breathing through his mouth. Dixon thought he’d never seen a human frame radiating so much insolence without resource to speech, gesture, or any contortion of the features. This figure swung a silver tray in an attempt at careless grace, and was looking past Dixon at Christine. When Dixon said, ‘Tea for two, please’ the waiter smiled faintly at her, as if in lofty but sincere commiseration, then swung aside, allowing the tray to rebound from his kneecap as he walked off.”