The Resolution Project Season Two: Lucky Jim (1954)

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books / the resolution project

“Dixon felt that, on the contrary, he had a good idea of what his article was worth from several points of view. From one of these, the thing’s worth could be expressed in one short hyphenated indecency; from another, it was worth the amount of frenzied fact-grubbing and fanatical boredom that had gone into it; from yet another, it was worthy of its aim, the removal of the ‘bad impression’ he’d so far made in the college and in his Department.” (pp. 10)

Lucky Jim cover

The Resolution Project Season Two: For my New Year’s resolution last year (2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I got almost halfway through. I’ve decided to bull-headedly push on through and try and finish the challenge, continuing with the same caveat as before: I’ve exempted myself from reading books I’ve already read, leaving some eighty-six or so left to go. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned if you’re the type to be bothered by that. It’s not really worth getting that angry about though.

The Elevator Pitch: Jim Dixon is a young lecturer on the subject of Medieval History at a small college somewhere in the English Midlands. He’s not the best at his job, but keep in mind he also has to deal with a pedantic supervisor, students who are either sycophants or completely disinterested, a woman who engages in emotional terrorism against him and the creeping suspicion that he’s squandered his whole life away. When his supervisor’s artiste-wannabe son comes to town with his girlfriend in tow, Dixon finds himself rebelling against him and the social order of the school, as well as all the assholes that inhabit it.

What I knew about this book, its subject and its author going in: Next to nothing. I’d heard it was pretty funny, and was pleased to find out this was the case. I also had a dim memory in my mind that Kingsley Amis was related to Martin Amis.

Thoughts: Sorry again about not posting very much lately. I could continue to trot out the excuses of work and life being busy, which continue to be the case, but the real culprit here is actually a woman named Christina Stead. To my infinite misfortune, the public library in my home town was not able to get Invisible Man to me when I needed it, and I was forced to grab the next book available on my holds list, Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children. Let me tell you, this book is a slog. It is incredibly dull, lethally written and the name on the cover gets you strange looks if you read it in public places. By the point I’ve reached so far (around 100 pages in, or 1/5 of the way through), I definitely wish that it was indeed about a child molestor, as that would actually constitute a story worth maintaining any interest in whatsoever, as opposed to the warmed-over After School Special piece of crap that it actually is.

Lev Grossman and I

As I noted before in my vacation-shortened review of The Great Gatsby, Lev Grossman, half of the team who chose the books on the Time 100 list, specifically told me that he would never read this book again if he had his druthers. I’m beginning to understand why.

Anyway, I ended up ditching Stead’s crap opus as soon as my library came through on another hold. Lucky Jim was that book, and I ended up really enjoying it in the end. I’m going to space out reading The Man Who Loved Children between other, more palatable volumes, because I am one stubborn son of a bitch who’s not going to let a terrible author like CHRISTINA STEAD beat me. Bore me silly? Yes. But win? Not on your fucking life. She doesn’t deserve the pleasure. If I can make it through Blood Meridian, Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow relatively unscathed, no inexplicably lauded piece of crap like Children is going to stop me.

Lucky Jim reminded me of my student days, and reminded me that I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed continuing on to grad school quite as much as I feel I would have sometimes. Say what you will about my current employment at the comic shop, it rarely sends me into paroxysms of doubt and self-loathing the way having to deal with academics and their individual peccadilloes would have most likely done. Dixon’s dread at delivering a lecture on “Merrie England” brought me back to things I had to do back then that I absolutely hated, like learn a language, or go to my Early Modern English History class, an interesting subject which was ruined by a prof who had an incredibly irritating way of speaking and gave us twice as many papers to write than he had any right to.

Kingsley Amis does a great job of getting you into Dixon’s head, possibly to a fault. We really understand him and his struggles, but learn less about his contemporaries. They’re not super important in the grand scheme of things though. What is important is Amis’ spot on descriptions of being apocalpytically, impossibly drunk, and the aftermath thereof:

“His face was heavy, as if little bags of sand had been painlessly sewn into various parts of it, dragging the features away from the bones, if he still had bones in his face. Suddenly feeling worse, he heaved a shuddering sigh. Someone seemed to have leapt nimbly up behind him and encased him in a kind of diving-suit made of invisible cotton-wool. He gave a quiet groan; he didn’t want to feel any worse than this.” (pp. 58)

I also really liked how Amis phrased Dixon’s competition with his supervisor’s son for the girl as a sort of war. Jim, being a not super attractive man with little in the way of finances or social standing, would essentially have gotten used to fighting tooth and nail for anything he could get, and a war of attrition for a woman’s love seems perfectly in character, and very flavorful.

Scott Pilgrim leveling up

Dixon by the end of it really reminded me of a literary hero from my own homeland, that man being of course Scott Pilgrim. Both are young guys who are in desperate need of a little growing up; both have a disconnected view of the real world and its trials, Scott escaping into video game metaphor while Dixon being in the 1950s has to settle on making faces behind peoples’ backs and drinking copiously. By the end, though, Scott actually grows up more than Dixon, who lives up to the title’s promise and basically gets out unscathed. I thought that was interesting, that an angry young man back then was essentially allowed to run riot, whereas by now he has to change or die.

All in all, I enjoyed this book quite a bit. I will say though that it’s probably a “men’s” book, in that I don’t know how interesting a woman would find reading it. None of the women are important characters in their own right, and as mentioned above, the main romantic interest of the story is treated as spoils of war on one hand, and as an impossibly beautiful demi-goddess or something on the other. Still, if a sort of mean-spirited post graduation lark is something you’re interested in, it’s worth a try. Here’s a bit about a bus that I liked:

“As the traffic thickened slightly towards the town, the driver added to his hypertrophied caution a psychopathic devotion to the interests of other raod-users; the sight of anything between a removal-van and a junior bicycle halved his speed to four miles an hour and sent his hand, Dixon guessed, flapping in a slow-motion St Vitus’ dance of beckonings and wavings-on. Learners practised reversing across his path; gossiping knots of loungers parted leisurely at the touch of his reluctant bonnet; toddlers reeled to retrieve toys from under his just-revolving wheels.” (pp. 258)

Similar books on the Time 100 list: Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time series eventually wheels its way around to this point in English history, while the schoolboy reminiscences of Brideshead Revisited look at university life from a gentler (student) point of view. The sense of humor on display in Lucky Jim also reminded me of A Handful of Dust to a certain extent, but your mileage may vary on that one.

Total pages read since January 1st 2011: 15925 pp. (1466 this year)

Total books on the Time 100 list read: 55/113, or 49% complete.

Next up on the Resolution Project: TBA, I’m going on vacation soon, so I might read “fun” books while I’m there. Haven’t quite decided all that yet.

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The Author

Matt Bowes is a self-proclaimed cultural commentator/arbiter of good taste from Edmonton, Alberta. He enjoys movies and books, and writes about them sometimes at thisnerdinglife.com.

3 Comments

  1. You have single-handedly made me dread reading Christina Stead! And the title of that book already made me leery.

    • I’m reading 100 pages of it in between other, more palatable books. It’s a real slog so far, and I don’t anticipate it getting much better.

      To be fair though, you’ve got me pretty worried about Faulkner.

  2. Pingback: Late to the Party: Old Flith, by Jane Gardam (2004) | this nerding life

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