I reviewed David Lodge’s Nice Work a couple of months ago — here’s another campus novel to break up the steady stream of nonfiction.
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
It’s a few years after the end of World War II, and a hapless young man named Jim Dixon has somehow managed to blunder into a job teaching history at a stolid and relatively undistinguished red-brick university. He isn’t particularly interested in what he’s teaching, he isn’t particularly fond of his students, and he regards his fellow staff members (particularly Professor Welch, a senior member of his Department) with something not far short of outright loathing. He doesn’t even have much interest in Margaret, the colourless girl he’s been seeing — especially not after he meets Christine, a very attractive and intelligent woman who unfortunately is the girlfriend of Professor Welch’s smarmy, artsy son Bertrand. Far from being lucky, Jim seems to have the worst luck of anyone, even if he does bring the bad luck on himself more often than not. But when he’s invited to give a public lecture on ‘Merrie England’, he has a chance to secure his teaching job for the forseeable future. The outcome of his lecture might well depend on how lucky — or unlucky — he really is.
Lucky Jim is a campus novel, a story set on a red-brick university campus (as opposed to the ‘varsity novel’ set in Oxford or Cambridge), and it revolves around the lives of the academics and their little turf wars. None of the characters are particularly likeable, though in some ways that’s part of the point of the novel. But even if the satire feels more than a little dated a half-century on — it was first published in 1954 — it is still fairly pointed in its mockery of the classist nature and the pretentious, inbred world of academia. Amis also has an ear for clever turns of phrase, and one of my favourite scenes in the whole book features the best description of waking up with a hangover that I’ve ever read.
As far as the ending goes…well, I won’t spoil it for you completely, save to say that it’s a happy ending. And perhaps it’s just me, but I found the happy ending to be rather unsatisfying. Jim gets his happy ending by chance and through a plot device that slots neatly into a deus ex machina At the least, it seems a little too much like the climax of a rather weak late Victorian novel. By the time I was about halfway through the book, I was generally rooting for Dixon not to get his happy ending. (I’m not entirely sure what that says about me, or about the novel, but it does bear mentioning.) As a classic of academic satire and one of the best-known campus novels, most anyone involved in a love-hate relationship with the academic world will be able to get something worthwhile out of it.