Smells Like Kingsley Amis

You can't mean for me to stick my paws in that foul device? Credit:

You can’t mean for me to put down my fag and stick my paws in that foul device? [Credit:]

Something is alive in our garbage disposal. Or, more likely, something once alive is no longer, and deep in the 0.5 horsepower disposal unit its life is seeping away, transformed into something rich and strange indeed, if by “rich and strange” the Bard was referring to shipwreck victims turning into vaguely soy-smelling blobs of stinky yuck.

I was coming around to the thought that I might have to make Amy clean the thing out when I realized that this dawning awareness of something awful reminded me of one of the funniest, most delightful passages in literature. Chapter 6 of Kingsley Amis’ Lucky JimĀ picks up after our (anti) hero Dixon has had a night of it. He wakes up in an unfamiliar bed, and Amis so brilliantly walks us through each painful sensory increment:

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 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.
Lucky Jim (NYRB Classics, 2012)

I had the great random fortune to delay taking English 11 at Amherst until sophomore year, when the curriculum was fantastic and I was maybe more ready to take it seriously. My instructor, the unstoppable Bill Pritchard, handed us this opening passage (I think we didn’t read the whole novel) and asked us to write a short response on what made it funny. Obviously the line about the small creature of the night is the killer here, and from my perspective as shoulda-studied-Latin guy I have the nagging feeling that more Classically trained readers would recognize something from Virgil in the buildup to “He felt bad.” I feel like the careful elaboration of each sensory brutality echoes in language the too-precise steps that the hung-over person takes to avoid having his/her head explode. If I had to submit something to Bill Pritchard today that would be it.

I will have to read the whole chapter aloud to Amy while she is roto-rootering the sink. Literature is truly the balm for all of life’s difficulties!

3 thoughts on “Smells Like Kingsley Amis

  1. Kinglsey Amis would very much enjoy your “having to get Amy to clean out the disposal.” Another guffaw making motif is how his instructor is always getting people to do things for him, in the sneakiest possible ways…
    All time funny scene – cleaning up the bedroom at this teachers house after burning the blanket with his cigarette, and his fear of the guy’s truly dreadful son.
    Laugh out loud is still my response to this giant novel fifty years on.

  2. Interestingly, given the context of the toilet habits of small creatures of the night, in ancient Greek the word “amis” (genitive: amidos) means “chamber-pot”. I have never been able to discover whether Kingsley adopted the Greek word as a pen name or whether it is merely a linguistic coincidence. Note also that an amis was a male-only chamber-pot specifically designed for use during symposia (in the original sense of drinking parties).

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