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Defector Reads A Book

Holy Sheets! It’s Time To Discuss ‘Lucky Jim’

Cover image: NYRB Classics

Welcome back to Defector Reads A Book! Our May DRAB selection was Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jimwhich the Defector book sickos have read and discussed. We’ll be down in the comments to chat with you as soon as you’re done reading

Giri Nathan: Can everyone please describe their present facial expression in the most graphic and gruesome detail possible? Ideally with some reference to animals and/or an obscure colonial slur.

Kelsey McKinney: Her brow scrunched in the middle like a squirrel nibbling on an acorn, her mouth pulled tight like it could rip in the middle, but her eyes were full of laughter. 

Barry Petchesky: I’m doing my Prussian warlord face.

Patrick Redford: The corners of his mouth sagged in a wide, blank grimace, as if waylaid by a Scythian trader, framed by the thin snakelike lips of a man who knows he’s done wrong without knowing what it is he’s done wrong.

Maitreyi Anantharaman: Very nicely done. I think the obsession with scrunched-up faces and gestures and weird noises is why Lucky Jim felt so much to me like a 250-page episode of Seinfeld. Both the physical comedy and also the character-audience relationship. Dixon doesn’t really behave in any sympathetic way … and yet! You do understand where he’s coming from sometimes, don’t you? His impulses and stray thoughts ring true. Here:

[slap bass] Ever notice how women are always referring to ‘Uncle’ or ‘Daddy’ and so on? Like there’s only one uncle or daddy in the world…this particular uncle is eeeeveryone’s uncle. 

See it?

GN: Jim Halpert/Dixon face! Breaking the fourth wall vs. this funny narratorial acknowledgement that there is someone “watching” the scene besides the characters in it. The joke is: Are you seeing/hearing this shit that I’m seeing/hearing?

PR: That sensibility really works for Jim the protagonist too, as he very explicitly is a passenger in his own life, or at least aspires to be.

KM: Not to make yet another DRAB talk about perspective, but I did really like that we have a close third-person narration with such a strong narrator. I think it allows for the jokes to really feel like both Amis’s and Dixon’s, which was fascinating to me. I felt like a lot of the Dixon character came more from that narration than from his actual voice. 

BP: Misanthropy tends to be a lot funnier with some remove, I think—it’s like Seinfeld in that way too. “The one indispensable answer to an environment bristling with people and things one thought were bad was to go on finding out new ways in which one could think they were bad.” This is funny and relatable to read! But not very pleasant to live.

GN: I don’t know that there is a more reliable comic engine in literature than pointing out in fine-grained detail the ways that various types of guys suck.

PR: The best laugh I got out of the whole book came somewhat early, when Dixon meets Bertrand, a guy who sucks in an unrelatable sense specifically but in a very relatable sense generally, and gets so flustered trying to banter with him that when threatened with a face-punching, he goes, “If I did; you don’t think you’re the one to give me one, do you?” And Bertrand is just like, “What?” The very particular sensation of chopping up your own word salad at a critical moment was conjured perfectly.

BP: Bertrand is just the rich-guy asshole from a 1980s teen movie!

GN: I do think the “wannabe-bohemian” is a crucial wrinkle to that archetype. I love when Dixon is internally roasting Bertrand’s way of talking: “‘if you’ll pardon the expression’ … Why shouldn’t they pardon the expression? Dixon thought. Why?”

MA: I wrote that one down in my notes. I liked the way rage just builds in Dixon’s head; he develops these one-sided feuds that only we’re privy to. Obviously his feud with Bertrand will go on to be two-sided, but very soon after meeting Bertrand, Dixon “felt like devoting the next ten years to working his way to a position as art critic on purpose to review Bertrand’s work unfavorably.” 

GN: Also some great and sneaky foreshadowing there…

BP: The “get up and cheer moment” for me wasn’t when he punched Bertrand but when Gore-Urquhart said Bertrand’s art was garbage.

KM: My first real laugh in the book was when Dixon is dragging himself when he goes to meet Margaret for a drink for the first time after her suicide attempt and the narrator explains that she was a colleague to whom “he’d been drawn by a combination of virtues he hadn’t known he possessed: politeness, friendly interest, ordinary concern, a good-natured willingness to be imposed upon, a desire for unequivocal friendship.” And then immediately after this he’s like complaining because this new idea of “having a friend” has forced him to answer questions like “do you like coming to see me?” Incredible.

BP: I had a good chuckle at Dixon buying a “completely unprovoked gift” for Margaret that was a book of poetry by a poet he hated and thought was crap. I feel like there’s so much you can infer from that act about how he feels toward Margaret and their relationship. But he was so proud of himself for doing it!

PR: Just one of many classic Jim Dixon pranks and goofs, the best of which was the bit with the cigarette and the bedsheets.

MA: Another sitcom-style faux pas. 

GN: This made me nostalgic for a robust prank culture. The war he waged against Johns was epic in scope. The internet has ruined analog pranks. They’re all cringey set-ups explicitly aiming at virality.

BP: If they remade Lucky Jim today, Jim would be a YouTuber.

PR: Getting DRUNK Before My Big Day (It Didn’t Go Well)

KM: How Did I Start a Fire!! (I’m Still Unsure)

PR: I’m Shocked: Did She Try Suicide? My Reaction To The Margaret News

GN: History Chair LAID ME OFF???

Anyway, YouTubing is definitely a more financially responsible decision than becoming a junior lecturer. More pint money.

PR: The money angle is an interesting entrypoint into the temporality of this book. I thought Dixon’s cig regimenting was an addiction thing, but as the intro states, this was postwar England and he was trying to save money. Also a good deal of his hate towards Bertrand had to do with the fact that he was one of the only guys who wasn’t getting crushed by austerity. 

KM: I did love that in, like, the first five pages of the book Dixon is like, I can’t have another cigarette until five, and then proceeds to smoke three cigarettes in the next hour. 

BP: It’s stuff like the cigs that made him a more sympathetic character to me than perhaps he deserved. Like, he’s no great shakes, but can’t the miserable man just have his smokes?

MA: What does Dixon actually want? There were shades of Tom Ripley here—we get to know his resentments well, but not much else about him. Maybe it says something about academia, where that sense of aimlessness is always in the air. There’s a line—“He wouldn’t have thought it possible that a man who’d done so exactly what he’d set out to do could feel so violent a sense of failure and general uselessness”—that felt like the motto of his profession. Regimen without purpose. And he doesn’t even seem attached to or passionate about his discipline—he studied medieval history because it was easy!—so all that’s left for him to achieve is more toadying and politicking, which is not very satisfying.    

GN: I think he wanted to be extricated from his personal and professional entanglements, which were largely due to his lack of initiative and honesty and planning, with as little initiative and honesty and planning as possible. And goddamn did it work out.

PR: Admirable. I think as is the case with a lot of latter-day slacker characters, characters who may have been inspired by Jim, he wants to be appreciated for his “worst” qualities, like his ability to float through things despite the obstacles he stacks up for himself.

BP: I also made the Tom Ripley connection while reading, Maitreyi. But as to what he wants: I think it’s as simple as he doesn’t want to have to do anything he doesn’t want to do. Which is relatable in a way and not exactly traditional protagonist behavior in another way. But it worked out perfectly for him! In the span of like a few hours he biffed his lecture, got hired by the rich Scottish guy, got a completely guilt-free excuse to drop Margaret, and got a future with Christine. Lucky Jim indeed. How did the ending come off to you folks? The Margaret stuff really rubbed me the wrong way.

KM: Barry, can you say a little more about why? I felt very unsettled for probably the last 20 pages but after much reflection, could not really pin down why. I just felt unhappy with it! I wanted more for all of them. Margaret’s motivation for faking her suicide seems to just be some trope of “women are nuts.” 

GN: The idea that a “faked” suicide attempt absolves you of all personal responsibility to said person has aged, ahem, interestingly since 1954.

BP: I guess it’s very “of its time” but no matter what Margaret’s deal is, she’s not in a great place, and the book plays that as a get-out-of-jail-free card for Jim. She’s not his problem anymore! As a reader, I’m just sort of left wondering, “Well, what happens to Margaret now?” And there aren’t very many cheerful versions of that hypothetical.

KM: I guess it’s just hard for me to believe that! The Bell Jar came out in 1963, which was nine years later. I think it was also difficult for me to accept this kind of cop-out from the author and from Dixon because at the same time I was reading this, I was reading Tove Ditlevsen’s The Faces, which is a first-person mental illness novel that came out in 1968 and feels like it could be written today. I know that a lot happened in the 50s that changed culture, but even if I grant Amis the “it was a different time” excuse, it still feels just narratively unfinished to me? 

GN: Yeah, I’m interested in how successful that Margaret plot turn was as a comic release valve, in its time. There’s also an incident of “hysteria” in the book. It makes me think that readers then wouldn’t have been left with the same sense of unease. Jim is also a terminally self-interested guy whose project throughout the book has been shearing off obligations to people who aren’t hot and can’t pay him money, so, maybe we are just getting more of the same, but with tragicomic stakes.

PR: In the introduction, aioli genius Keith Gessen said it sold tremendously well, which, again, probably has a lot to do with the alienation and anxiety of Marshall Plan-era England. I am guessing here that English readers enjoyed how mercilessly Amis went in on Welch, as my thin experience of British comedy tells me there’s nothing funnier on that island than pointing to a dour old fart and saying, “Look at this dour old fart!”

Also, to the question of the ending, I am a big “last sentence” guy, and I loved this: “The whinnying and clanging of Welch’s self-starter began behind them, growing fainter and fainter as they walked on until it was altogether overlaid by the other noises of the town and by their own voices.”

BP: Well, maybe then readers could have handled Margaret just getting hit by a lorry instead.

KM: Hahahahha. Honestly, sure! I’m not trying to be a downer about that twist of perception. It definitely made me think more about the book after I finished reading it. I liked the book! I completely understand why it was so popular!

MA: The treatment of Margaret also feels crueler when you remember, as the introduction explains, that her character was based on a real person. (This was Amis’s first novel, and my understanding is that he became increasingly contemptuous of women as he aged/got divorced.) I found her plight kind of sad and familiar, I think because she’s theoretically Dixon’s equal, right? They’re both lecturers—in fact, she’s a senior lecturer to his mere junior lecturer—so her being in a university setting feels like this mark of modernity that’s then totally undercut by the way Jim talks to and about her. Many of the book’s men were not treated very kindly by Amis either, sure, but Margaret’s character is drawn in some unfortunate, trope-y ways. To say nothing of Christine, who is…pretty? I don’t really know anything else about her. 

BP: Don’t forget, she also can’t find a good man because she’s so pretty. That’s the other half of her personality that Amis sketches out.

PR: Her hotness is described by Amis as “something designed to put him in his place for good,” so, yeah, those are her character’s stats. 

MA: Ah, yes, she is “doubly guilty, first of looking like that, secondly of appearing in front of him looking like that.” Incidentally, this is all exactly how I felt when Henrik Lundqvist was on the NHL on TNT panel the other day.

KM: Lol. Poor pretty Christine. I guess, I don’t really know why Amis even needed most of these characters. Like Margaret’s whole purpose is to make Jim feel trapped, which he already does feel from 500 other things his life. And Jim certainly hated Bertrand enough to fight him without Christine existing. The one beauty is that truly everyone is annoying to Jim. Jim hates them all! 

BP: Everyone in this story exists either to be a hindrance to Jim or a brief ally, and there are very few of the latter. Though Atkinson was a pretty great character. “Dixon liked and revered him for his air of detesting everything that presented itself to his senses, and of not meaning to let this detestation become staled by custom.”

MA: I loved Atkinson’s promise to faint well—“it’ll be a good faint”—if anything went wrong during the lecture. 

GN: The sheer number of, and conflicts between, obligations he has to different people seems to be Amis’s preferred way to advance the plot. I don’t know about you guys but I was sweating when Jim was juggling his various tea dates, library tasks, lecture preparation, and … drinking duties. Which all builds towards that climactic lecture.

BP: Yeah I thought it all served the pacing very well, just this madcap building of potential landmines all climaxing in one big set piece. Atkinson fainting when it wasn’t called for was just [chef’s kiss] amid all the rest of the chaos.

MA: The whole run-up to the lecture is great, too, with Dixon desperately trying to fill the time. When he first starts writing it, he finds “some sort of pabulum for a further forty-eight and a half minutes was evidently required, with perhaps a minute off for being introduced to the audience, another minute for water-drinking, coughing, and page-turning, and nothing at all for applause or curtain-calls.” Ah, who has not been there? Trying to add some extra words to an essay before 11:59 p.m.

BP: Drinking gets Jim into a lot of trouble twice in this book, but both are blessings in disguise. The first got him Christine, and it also gave us Amis’s wonderful description of a hangover.

MA: “He felt bad” makes for quite the punchline.

GN: Did you think Gore-Urquhart’s sabotage was intentional? Jim certainly didn’t need anyone’s help getting wasted but those last two swigs from the flask seemed to push him over the edge. And then Uncle Julius is losing it during the lecture, and he also probably knows he has released Jim from his life of academic woe, while having a lifeboat lined up for him.

BP: I didn’t think it was intentional at the time but do now. Gore-Urquhart was kind of this chaos agent throughout, which I think is what Dixon actually aspires to, but doesn’t have the means to pull it off in a way that won’t burn him.

KM: I agree with Barry! On first read, I thought it was all Dixon’s fault, but Gore-Urquhart really is a chaos monster! He can’t help himself! The fact that Gore-Urquhart looked at Bertrand, who so desperately wanted the job he had and was like “nah, I’m gonna give it to your arch rival instead because we both hate it when people are nice to each other,” leads me to believe he would happily sabotage a boring lecture. 

MA: His line about Dixon not having the right qualifications, but more importantly not having disqualifications was good. 

PR: Speaking of boring, and sabotage, how about Jim’s doomed run as a medieval era blogger? It was so funny when Jim raises the question of whether his blog is actually good, only to immediately be like, “No, that was going too far; but it did mean it was the right sort of stuff, and a man who’d written one lot of the right sort of stuff could presumably write more.” Lending support to the theory that Sisyphus likes the boulder and is just getting in a workout.

KM: Barry, do you want Jim’s blog: “The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485”

BP: This is a big-time nerd alert, but my first thought upon hearing the title was, “You know, that could potentially be interesting.” That was basically the height of the Hanseatic League!

MA: 🤓 That was basically the height of the Hanseatic League!

PR: I prefer the economic influence of shipbuilding techniques from 1515 to 1550, but OK, Barry.

KM: I truly do not wish to do this but I must. Barry, what is the Hanseatic League?

BP: Please come to my lecture next week. There will be an open bar.

DRAB will be in the comments for the next couple of days to hear your thoughts and chat with you. If you missed out on this month’s book, don’t worry! We’ll announce our next pick soon.