Angry, bellowing men with pythons for arms and peanuts for brains are no laughing matter. Disenchanted, seething gentlemen, whose arms exist merely for decoration and whose wits are tucked away in the dark steeples of brooding misanthropy are often a gaggle of laughs. Why we prefer one over the other is uncertain, yet the conundrum remains: why is being pissed from a distance so funny?
As if Holden Caufield found himself a trifle more well-adjusted English don, the hero from Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, Jim Dixon, sets the modern gold-standard for amusingly irritated young men. However, unlike Caufield, Dixon, despite his patent literary-level hatred for the Post-War English University, is regarded by most of today’s literati primarily as a childish perpetrator of mildly lascivious high jinks. This is not an untruth. How, then, amongst all the griping, does Dixon keep sneaking in the ole’ rib-tickler? By examining a few of Amis’s distancing narrative techniques, and their effects on our humorous interpretation of novel, one may gather how merely being miffed is enough to blister the knees.
It is no happenstance that Lucky Jim is written in the close-third-person narrative style. This narrative choice sets the perfect level of impersonality necessary for harmless irritation and subsequent schadenfreude. Where in more than a few cases the first-person narration style, with its highly intimate connection with authorial intention, might perhaps flounder, the close-third-person succeeds in creating just enough distance between the snappish views of the character and the author who wrote them. This faux distance is important for the reader, as it allows him to fully experience all the fun of the hatred whilst relieving him from any of the personal responsibility for enjoying it. The distant-third-person would ostensibly also be quite effective in the pursuit for amicable animosity, but in its stark dissociation from direct emotional experience, it often cannot quite achieve the level of intimacy needed for one to feel that humbling pang of guilt so closely linked with humor. Therefore, in depicting the Displeased, the close-third-person reigns as the supreme line-walker. How, then, does Amis apply this balanced mode, in conjunction with other techniques, to Jim Dixon’s understanding of the provincial university at which he works and the pedantic characters who inhabit it?
One technique Amis employs to achieve a safe proximity with the Scathing is to affect the first comedic commandment of Euphemism. How does one scathe euphemistically? It is in this very field where Lucky Jim displays its unique brand of genius. The idea here is similar to the effect of outboxing an opponent, whilst simultaneously inquiring into whether he endeavors to continue, yet reminding him he cannot stop the round; it is a kind of controlled, gentle viciousness that is a bit difficult to have happen upon one’s own person, but highly entertaining to watch. Dixon is not bashful about whom he targets for what is more than solely pugnacious satire, rather a kind of ruthless portrayal of truths. For an example of this, seek no further than the first scene of the novel, during which Dixon’s interpretations of Professor of History and mentor, Professor Welch, are described. Welch tells an anecdote to Dixon regarding his playing recorder and piano with a few music aficionados around the school, and how he was observed by and reported on by a local gazette. Whereupon, beginning with Welch, the following takes place:
“(B)ut what do you think they said then?”
“I don’t know, Professor,’ he said in sober veracity. No other professor in Great Britain, he thought, set such store by being called Professor.”
“‘Flute and piano.”
“Flute and piano; not recorder and piano.” Welch laughed briefly.
A veritable knee-slapper. And Dixon felt the very same way, going as far as to mention that “the older man… began speaking almost in a shout, with a tremolo imparted by unshared laughter”. And, though the laughs indeed remained in the singular form, Welch continued on absently and without consideration for the human constraints of boredom. Dixon, however, like a decent lad, attempts to honor this insufferable codger by “tr[ying] to flail his features into some sort of response to humor”. May we see now how Dixon is following the standards for decorum, responding in seemly ways, seemingly adhering to societal expectations, whilst also taking the piss? This is the very essence of being pissed from a distance. It is a kind of Bad Faith agreement wherein one conforms yet kicks dust. A subtle rebellion.
Let us now tackle the subject of Bertrand, the unequivocal coxcomb of the novel. Dixon treats Bertrand with palpable discontent. Fitting to the temperament of an exasperated young man, Dixon behaves the opposite way to his contemporary, Bertrand, than he does through his begrudging subservience to Professor Welch. Bertrand is rendered as something of a laughingstock. We are meant to laugh at Bertrand, not with him. Bertrand is described as a kind of Post-War beatnik; he is a self-proclaimed painter and caricature-grade clown; and Dixon sees this to its core. Through his persistent commentary on Bertrand’s madcap insistence on perpetually wearing a blue beret, Dixon dances not around his distaste of Bertrand, stating his claims outright: “He was wearing a blue beret, which had much the same effect on Dixon as Welch senior’s fishing-hat. If such headgear was a protection, what was it a protection against? If it wasn’t a protection, what was it for? What was it for?” Can we not hear Dixon’s irritation? Inevitably, one of the final elements of the novel is a, due to an ignominious lack of physical conditioning on the part of both participants, graceless affray between Bertrand and Dixon, of which event Dixon narrowly claims victory.
Lucky Jim is a young man’s novel. It preaches to the soul of the forthcoming thirty-years-of-age existential crisis, incisively arguing with, and often fittingly ignorant to, the antithetical notions of career versus freedom, love versus happiness, and suffering fools versus societal dissociation. Lucky Jim, truly a late-stage bildungsroman book, by Amis’s use of the close-third-person narrative style and tastefully detached prose style, a Looney Toons steam-whistle-escaping-from-the-shirt-collar hot-temperedness is rendered irascibility-light, a stiff scotch cut with water, heavy on the ice.