All great novels are about the meaning of life. Middlemarch, Don Quixote, Crime and Punishment, they all exude great, solemn mystery or radiate shafts of glory. They speak epochal truths; they go deep into the human heart.
Can a light comic novel be great then?
The question presented itself recently as I was reading Kingsley Amis’s 1953 Lucky Jim and my sides ached with laughter. Jim Dixon, Amis’s indelibly misanthropic hero, a graduate student at a provincial English university is trying to hang on to his lecturing job in Medieval history with a minimum amount of study. His real passion is chasing skirts and grimacing at how far out of reach life’s really nice things seem to be. Dixon‘s character is defined by an accute sensitivity to irritation, minor assaults on his bland happiness. One day, as his professor’s answer to a pointed question dribbles off into a verbose soup of non-answers, Dixon reflects, “For the first time since arriving at the College, he thought he felt real, overmastering, orgiastic boredom, and its companion, real hatred.” This is Dixon.
Aside from being laugh-out-loud funny, why did Lucky Jim raise the question of greatness for me? First, because it depicts an anti-hero that anyone living in the developed West can immediately identify with. Even if we have never gazed on an English university or thought of studying history, we are all harried by the same niggling, modern irritations Jim is.
Who has never had to politic with a cretinous bore who happens to be one’s boss? Who has never grudgingly attended an hours-long social function of the exact kind one would pay richly to avoid even for five minutes? Gripped one’s car seat in sweaty panic as the driver casually annihilates every convention revered by the rest of the motoring public? Stood stunned by an educated person’s inability, over the course of several stammering, drawn-out minutes, to form a clear sentence about a simple topic?
If you have ever felt offhand annoyance at such things build to an operatic rage, you will find a muse and maestro in Amis’s Dixon. (I even found myself wanting to be good at certain contemptible things Dixon is good at, for example, using intentionally unintelligeble hand signals to escape a looming scene of horror or boredom that has already locked one’s fellows in. Staff meetings come to mind.) I will come back in a moment to the philosophical significance of Amis’s louche meditation on life as a series of minor threats to one’s comfort. For now, though, I’d like to consider Lucky Jim’s more apparent merits.
One reason any critic would have to think seriously about ranking Lucky Jim among the greats is its pure stylstic excellence. It contains several memorably crystaline passages and at least one that will be recalled and cherished centuries from now as a literary gem alongside Shakespeare’s war rally in “Henry the Fifth” and George Eliot’s haunting final paragraph of Middlemarch. Amis’s topic? The hangover.
In the scene in question, Dixon had spent the prior evening at the home of his boss, a full professor of history, barely keeping a lid on his contempt for a house full of academics gathered to recreate authentic Medieval “village” music. Miserable among so much pretentious flatulence, then caught out in a song for not being able to read music (he had said he could, “in his own way”), Dixon sneaked out to the local pub. He rapidly downed nine pints, achieving a kind of release from Sartre’s hell. Returning to his professor’s home and fumbling toward his room in the dark, Dixon stumbled across a bottle of port, whose contents he decanted unsteadily, half down his throat, half down his (white) shirt. His night thus capped, he passed out in his room. The next morning dawns in this manner:
“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 has 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 a secret police. He felt bad.”
In another scene, an almost-compliment from his almost-girlfriend Margaret freezes Dixon in his reflexive stance of expecting the worst. She calls him tactful and attentive. Does this stoke feelings of well-being? It does not. “Dixon alerted all his faculties. Conundrums that sounded innocent or even pleasant were the most reliable sign of impending attack, the mysterious horseman sighted riding towards the bullion-coach.“ Dixon senses Margaret is trying to draw him into an entanglement of intimacy without sex—decidedly not one of life’s nice things.
Dixon dislikes almost all his peers, at least in some small way. He makes a telling exception, though, for Atkinson, a fellow boarder in his house who was a tank commander during the war. “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.” Atkinson laughs “barbarically” at others: he is a man with his hands on the ropes, in Dixon‘s estimation. (And Atkinson is, by the way, the only character in the book who does something unambiguously good for Dixon, contriving near the end of the story to help him win the pretty girl.)
Comedy is at least as much about misdirection as hyperbole, of course. And so it is with Lucky Jim. All the while Amis is telling of Dixon’s exquisite daily trials so poetically, he is showing a whole new farcical dimension of his main character. Dixon’s wrath at ordinary life, we discover, frequently outruns even Amis’s expert ability to describe it. There are occasions, we are reminded, so woe-inducing, so disorienting in their offense on our joy, that they reduce us to pre-linguistic displays of contempt or outrage. Dixon is an inveterate maker of faces.
We find, in the course of the novel, that Jim has gathered up a store of the following faces to punctuate certain offenses or to staunch certain kinds of wound:
A shot-in-the back face,
A tragic mask face
A Chinese mandarin face
A crazy peasant face
A lemon-sucking face
A martian invader face
A sex-life in Rome face
An Eskimo face
An Evelyn Waugh face
And an Edith Sitwell face.
I had to look the last one up. Here it is:
What to make of Dixon’s—and, one feels, Amis’s—steadfast misanthropy? Is it no more than a romp through the lighter side of modern angst?
The Czech-French novelist Milan Kundera defined the novel as a prose meditation using experimental selves to discover a new facet of human existence. Yes, fine, you might say, but is there anything new about a character who is bothered by the run of ordinary life? Dostoevsky‘s Underground Man seems to have already done that trope to death, and to a much more serious point.
Amis, though, is on to something different. It is not quite Dostoevsky’s specialty, existential dread. Amis gives a clue as to what it is in this passage, a reverie by Dixon as he collects students’ history exams:
“Those who professed themselves unable to believe in the reality of human progress ought to cheer themselves up, as the students under examination had conceivably been cheered up, by a short study of the Middle Ages. The hydrogen bomb, the South African Government, Chaing Kai-Shek, Senator McCarthy himself, would then seem a light price to pay for no longer being in the Middle Ages.”
Let’s apply Kundera’s definition of the novel literally for a moment. If Dixon is an experimental self, an alter ego tried on by Amis—and proffered for the reader to try on—to show the world in a certain light, what is the experiment’s independent variable? What is it that Amis dials up and down in Dixon to to produce the novel’s desired effects? Annoyance. Irrascibility if you like. But can that base sentiment be the pivot on which a great novel turns?
Yes, it can.
In Lucky Jim’s supreme achievement of misdirection, it does speak an epochal truth, despite Amis’s light-comic tone. For the first time in history, it says, humans have built political units rich, liberal and stable enough to sustain societies in which it is possible, more or less all the time, to remain in a state of feeling inconvenienced by minor things. Conditions that would have been inconceivable luxuries for millennia can now, for the last minute of human history, give grounds for constant fretfulness. This outcome shows, in Kundera’s “scientific” sense, that any decent person can, and must believe in the reality of human progress.
Although Lucky Jim is much more than this stark moral, it does have what Orwell would call a message, and that message is much more political than a good novelist would care to let on: “You never had it so good!” So the next time you casually use the phrase “first-world problems” to mark your chagrin at being put off by an embarassment of riches, remind yourself that Kingsley Amis has written a whole novel about what you are feeling, and it is a great novel.