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What’s so funny?

July 22, 2008

Lucky Jim is not a fall-down laugh riot.  But it doesn’t have to be.  It’s a long series of pleasure bursts fueled by screwy situations and a quirky British style that, in 1954 was fresh, cheeky and new.  Maybe now a little threadbare and weedy, not state of the art.  But it’s still a pleasure.

Jim Dixon is Kingsley’s hapless protagonist, a twenty-something university lecturer, and we are watching him crash and burn, his academic career going up in smoke—thanks to women, drink and a deep disgust with the whole thing.  He doesn’t seem to care that much. At heart, he scorns academia.

Kingsley is funny because of two things—situation and style.  David Lodge, a long-time fan says that “while the comedy of situation is inseparable from the style, the reverse is not always true: the style can provoke laughter on its own.”  Lucky Jim’s many farcical situations, as Lodge says, “involve the violation of a polite code of manners,” a time-honored practice in British writing.  The reader is in on the joke and can’t help but cheer as Jim tries to conceal self-inflicted damages to bed sheets or as he disguises his voice on the phone, pranking his boss’ wife.

Here’s Jim thinking about the scholarly article that he needs to get published in order to survive:

“Dixon had read, or begun to read, dozens like it, but his own seemed worse than most in its air of being convinced of its own usefulness and significance. ‘In considering this strangely neglected topic?’ it began. This what neglected topic?  This strangely what topic?  This strangely neglected what?  His thinking all this without having defiled and set fire to the typescript only made him appear to himself as more of a hypocrite and fool. ‘Let’s see,’ he echoed Welch in a pretended effort of memory: ‘oh yes; The Economic Effect of the Development in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485.”

This is the comedy of style.  The article’s title, completely ridiculous, yet completely believable.  Not unlike some of the song titles I’ve inserted in The Winning Rats, I hope.  And his interior monologue—“this what neglected topic…this strangely what topic…”  Then his “pretended effort of memory” (like his boss, Professor Ned Welch), it’s all a game, scorn, breaking the rules of etiquette, letting us in as co-conspirators.

After a skipping off to a pub to avoid a painful event at Welch’s country house, Jim wakes up the next morning.  Chapter 6 opens thus:

“Dixon was alive again.  Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection.  He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning.  The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again.  A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse.  His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum.” 

I will steal that latrine image.

None of this language is overly urbane, Wildean clever.  It’s inelegant and reasonably down to earth, albeit an English one, not too upper crust…although the Britishism of the “tarry shingle of the morning” is a bit musty. 

Jim’s habit of making “faces”, unseen by anyone, to display, usually, dismay, irritation, disappointment are worthy of note.  Among others, he has made the following “faces:” Eskimo, Martian-invader, sex-life-in-ancient-Rome, Edith Sitwell:

“…(Jim) heard Maconochie say: ‘Ah, there he is now, Mr. Michie,’ and made his Eskimo face, which entailed, as well as an attempt to shorten and broaden his face by about half, the feat of abolishing his neck by sucking it down between his shoulders.”

Kingsley gets up a nice head of steam as the novel heads to its conclusion…the famous drunken lecture on “Merrie England” and Jim’s subsequent sacking…and then the unexpected appearance of his fairy godmother (not really) who makes it all better by offering him a new job in London where he can, at last, get the girl.  Actually, some critics have seen a fairy tale sort of arrangement overall—Jim is the Frog Prince, Christine the princess, Gore-Urquhart the fairly godmother….Margaret the witch.  I can go along with that.  Who’s more interesting?  The witch or the princess?  I’d say the witch.  Margaret, as we find out, is rather nuts, inventing schemes against her—she’s high maintenance.  And Jim should avoid her.

But, frankly, I was hoping for more from the “Merrie England” lecture.  It was merely disappointing in its lack of the same level of comedy of the stronger streaks in the book.  Perhaps, I was hoping for a more Pythonesque bit.

Kingsley Amis, by Ralph Steadman

 

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