Looking Back on “Lucky Jim”
This question pops up in Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, in which the not-so-lucky protagonist/semi-antihero finds himself stuck in an academic job he hates. Yet he still craves job security, which hinges on a boss who cares more about social interactions than actual scholarly work. Sound familiar?
Lucky Jim may be the ultimate nose-thumbing at academia, but it can also be treated as an instructional manual for those who are stuck in jobs they hate. Lucky Jim is the literary equivalent of the “Eff You” monologue in Half Baked, only all the F-bombs are replaced with full sentences. What follows are some tips from this ur-text of campus fiction:
Go after what you want. No, really. Professor Jim Dixon just loooves Christine, who is the girlfriend of Bertrand, who is–inconveniently enough–the pseudo-painter son of Dixon’s hot mess of a supervisor, Professor Welch. Christine is out of Dixon’s league socially. Even the woman chasing after Dixon says spitefully, “You don’t think she’d have you, do you? A shabby provincial bore like you.” But Dixon doesn’t give up that easily, and when he’s brave enough to go for it, he discovers that Christine is interested in him.
Exhaust appropriate outlets for your work frustration. Whenever Jim’s enemies (overeager students, supervisors, malicious colleagues) approach, he contorts his face into a ridiculous expression. He even has names for each of those expressions. Childish, yes, but it’s better than the alternative presented in the book, which is setting your hostess’s bed on fire with cigarettes.
DVD image from Amazon. Perhaps it is copyrighted, but I’m encouraging you to buy the book or DVD, so hope it helps.
Build a network of allies, preferably outside the workplace. Jim becomes tight with Atkinson, a former military man and insurance salesman who lives at the same boarding house. Atkinson, who is refreshingly blunt and doesn’t put up with any crap whatsoever, enjoys helping to spring Jim from awkward situations through phone calls and fainting fits.
Find happiness in the small things. Professor Welch is so dense that he doesn’t bother to read signs indicating which doors are for going in and for going out. This provides endless amusement for Dixon: “Welch, his hair flapping, was straining like a packed-down rugby forward to push the revolving door in the wrong direction…. With a sudden bursting click the door yielded and Welch overbalanced backwards, hitting his head on the panel behind him. Dixon went away, beginning to whistle his Welch tune in a solemn, almost liturgical tempo. He felt that it was things like this that kept him going.”
Don’t mix up doing what’s right with being chicken. Just as Dixon starts to find his backbone and quit a career that isn’t suited to him, he must also quit a female who isn’t suited to him. Margaret is a fellow professor in the department, and she is written as the physical embodiment of the job Dixon doesn’t like yet insists on sticking with. Dixon tells Christine, the woman he really loves, that he knows exactly what’s wrong with him: “I’m sticking to Margaret because I haven’t got the guts to turn her loose and let her look after herself, so I do that instead of doing what I want to do, because I’m afraid to. It’s just a sort of stodgy, stingy caution that’s the matter with us; you can’t even call it looking after number one.”
If you haven’t read it, I won’t reveal the outcome, but the book makes clear that “stodgy, stingy caution” serves only to make a person miserable, and if you’re staying with a job (or a person who embodies that job as Margaret does), then you’re just going to make everyone around you miserable. Oh, and hang out with people who can faint on cue. Just saying.