Kingsley Amis, “Lucky Jim” (1954) – It’s probably for the best I read the great comic novel of academic fecklessness at the end of my grad student career (and, odds are, my academic career more generally) rather than at the beginning. I’ve spoken with people who say “Lucky Jim” speaks to their contemporary academic experience, and more-or-less believe them. But truth be told, the actual action in the novel is pretty far from my experience. Not that much happens, I find, and I’ve probably been lucky but the faculty I’ve worked with have all been very encouraging of me (probably a little more than makes sense given the market, but hey- I still appreciate it) and I don’t hate any of them.
But the overarching themes ring pretty true. Above all, there’s contrast between the high-minded idealistic palaver of what the university is all about, and the grubby reality based in very material things- money, sex, status, power in the most basic sense of being able to impose one’s will on others. I’m not sure that the actual grubbiness is any more grubby than any other field. But the contrast is as strong as any… though I get the idea that tech might give it a run for its money these days.
Maybe some of the difference is context. I have to admit, I find it a little hard to feel bad for our hero Jim, even beyond his own flaws, because the profession as it was ascending in the early 1950s can’t possibly be as grim as the 2010s, as humanities academia is slowly dying out. But Amis sells it pretty well. I get the impression he fell off after his first novel, but he has a sharp caricaturist’s eye. He also has the amoral sensibility with the tiny seed (or maybe infection) of moral outrage that makes classical satire work from Juvenal’s day onward. This results in a near-equal number of people who deserve it and those who don’t getting cuttingly caricatured. Amis operates in a target-rich environment of the first category — pompous academics, careerist snitches, pretensious artists — and he doesn’t spare the second category, either, mainly consisting of women just in general. Amis is a misanthrope, but the thing with misanthropy (in men anyway) is that it usually turns out to be misogyny with extra steps.
“Lucky Jim” was written while Amis was still at least drifting along with the far-left politics fashionable in British cultural circles at the time, though he quickly turned rightward, hard. There’s a vulgar class politics at work in the novel. Jim and the few people he likes are by-and-large working class people attempting to climb one or another pole greased not just by class hierarchy but by the very pretenses of progressiveness the notionally-more-cultured ends of that hierarchy like to display. Though it’s hard to say why Jim was in academia in the first place- he clearly hates history (though Amis gets across the fact, as true today as it was then, that actually giving a shit about your topic is by no means necessary for academic success). Why is he bothering?
Short answer- he doesn’t, for long. In the end, Jim is basically saved from the consequences of his own fuck-ups via the deus-ex-machina of an independently wealthy guy who finds him funny. This gets to an important pattern. The problem isn’t really with the social order- it’s with the wrong people (signified by wrong taste, which usually follows a wrong soul) being empowered by it. This is the message of most right-leaning satire, from South Park to Amis and, not that right-left distinctions mean much in such a distant past, but it was basically Juvenal’s point too. Maybe this is more a reflection of my own (historical) experience than anything else, but I think that’s a powerful rhetorical mode we can’t just wish away in the hopes something fairer and more structurally-woke will take its place. I’m not so sure we should, either. ****