Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Why Should I Read?...

Lucky Jim

Kingsley Amis, 1954

Ironically, given Amis' reputation as an "Angry Young Man", Lucky Jim is the funniest book I've ever read. No other book has reduced me literally to weeping with laughter on a (fortunately largely deserted) train. Anger and humour are not incompatible, of course, but Amis' great gift is primarily comic.

Lucky Jim tells the story of Jim Dixon, a monumentally lazy lecturer in a 1950s redbrick university, as he attempts to hold on to his job despite his utter contempt for his colleagues and his marked preference for drinking and chasing women. Its focus on contemporary academic institutions made it seem a groundbreaking work in its day, but it follows an archetypal pattern. Dixon is the outsider who never fully assimilates the world of the novel - a world on which he acts as a window for the reader. Dixon is by no means an admirable character, but he is refreshingly free of hypocrisy and pretension, vices which his colleagues embody to excess. Like Jack Vance's Cugel stories or Richard Stark's Parker novels, in Lucky Jim we identify with a flawed protagonist. Amis, in using humour as his primary technique, has rather more in common with Vance than Stark.

And indeed it is humour which sets Amis among the greats. Again like Vance, Amis is a precise verbal humourist, and the amusement arises not so much from the situation as the way in which it is retailed. Have you ever woken up with foul taste in your mouth and a hangover? Me too. Ever thought of describing it like this? Me neither.

His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he'd somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.

In another episode, Dixon writes a deliberately illiterate poison-pen letter.

He read it through, thinking how admirably consistent were the style and the orthography. Both derived, in large part, from the essays of some of his less proficient pupils.

Such a style is a pearl without price and it cannot be taught. Amis' subsequent work never improved upon Lucky Jim; but what a benchmark he had set.

How has it influenced me?

I discovered Amis at a time -- the late 1980s -- when I was becoming very interested in matters of literary style. I could not have been less interested in 1950s' university life, but I devoured Lucky Jim. Amis is one of the very few writers I had discovered (Vance and Austen being the other obvious examples) who managed to impart humour to a situation solely by the way they described it. By divorcing the comedy from the situation, it is possible to find humour in circumstances which are not inherently amusing. At its best, this technique can make us look afresh at the situation, sometimes to feel guiltily complicit with an aggressor, sometimes to counterpoint an underlying poignancy. It's one of the things I try to do most often in my own writing, and Kingsley Amis is one of my touchstones.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

If you really do want to be angry in your writing, you need humour to avoid didacticism or ranting

Genuinely funny writing is a marriage of situation and style

If you are of the "write what you know" school, you almost certainly need to add something else: thematic depth and comedy are good places to start

Your first novel doesn't have to be crap...


David Isaak said...


Call me a barbarian, but over the years I've enjoyed Kingsley more than Martin.

Tim Stretton said...

Couldn't agree more. "The Rachel Papers" aside, Martin leaves me cold: far too clever for his own good (while not being as clever as he thinks he is) and without his dad's underlying generosity.