All right, my September hiatus is officially over. I can’t stand to be away any longer. And not only is it over, I’m going to try to start doing more book reviews than ever. Sometimes I’ll send them to subscribers, sometimes I won’t (I don’t want to overwhelm anyone with a zillion posts), so check in as often as you like. I might have something new up all the time. I’ve made a goal to get a review on World’s Strongest Librarian of every book I’ve ever read. Today we’re starting with Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis.
In some ways it’s a lucky book. When I went to a local used bookstore to find it I bumped into a friend I had not seen in years. She insisted on buying it for me, since she was the one who originally recommended it.
I love books that satirize academia. Whether it’s the pretentious students, the pretentious and grumpy professors…well, basically I think I just love anything that makes pretension look silly. Kingsley Amis’s comic masterpiece Lucky Jim might be my favorite in the genre. I am especially fond of it because it has aged so well. Watch a 1980s comedy and tell me that the jokes are still funny–well, some of them are, but you probably know what I mean. That era’s action and muscle movies are now funnier than the comedies. The things that were funny about this book in 1954 are still funny in 2010.
Or maybe it’s that the university environment hasn’t evolved much.
Jim Dixon is an unenthusiastic and uninspired lecturer at a fictional university in England, although it is almost certainly based on other British schools. I won’t spoil exactly how it happened, but Jim made a horrible first impression on the department. Much of the short novel (about 200 pages) is Jim vacillating between wondering if he’ll get fired at the end of the term, and worrying that he won’t.
My favorite parts of the book all involve Jim getting invited to tedious gatherings of professors that inevitably go wrong for him, usually because he gets drunk. The professors and artists go on and on while Jim’s hysterical internal monologue keeps pace.
The phone calls in the aftermath of the burned bedsheets are worth the price of the book and more, considering that you can probably find it used for a dollar.
Jim is also semi-involved in two semi-romances. It works out for the best, but that’s all I’ll say on that.
Also priceless is his feud with a snooty artist named Bertrand. Amis has a wonderful way of describing people, particularly when they have terrible mustaches. I have sat in many lectures full of people who acted and thought about themselves in the same way Bertrand does. His come comeuppance is pretty damn satisfying when it comes.
Amis knew that art was important, but that someone who cultivates the appearance of being “arty” is funny stuff.
And it isn’t that formal education is worthless–far from it in most cases, I would say. But if you have ever been at a party full of specialists, and each of them is trying to reassure themselves that their specialty is important enough, well…I’m glad we have it, because it gives us books like Lucky Jim.
If I were making a list of great academic satires, I would also include Straight Man by Richard Russo and Moo by Jane Smiley.