I don’t do this anymore, but I used to test people with books. I wouldn’t have said that this is what I was doing – if someone asked me what I thought I was up to at the time, I would have said I was simply participating in the well-known and enjoyable activity known as “sharing something you love”. This is still a very enjoyable and popular activity. I recently had the opportunity to recommend Fleabag to my own personal best friend, and I am still coasting off that high. I know that she will love it. It will add actual value to her rich and varied life, and at some point in the near future she will text me about the life-ruining sexiness of the sexy priest, and when she does, what I will think is now we are ready to share our enjoyment of this experience.
Last year I had the privilege of pointing her in the direction of Succession, an experience much more gratifying than giving someone even an expensive and thoughtful present. We have been friends for a long time, we know a lot about each other, but having 300 conversations about Succession opened up some windows that I’d assumed 16 years of friendship would have rusted over. Qualities of mine that she has always been baffled by were, if not explained, then at least thrown into sharper relief by the revelation that the terrible and disgusting and weak Kendall Roy is my TV boyfriend. I have always understood that she has a particular thing for a particular kind of face, but I understand it much better after learning that she will not be fully at peace until she has lain down in the road and let Shiv Roy run her over with a big tractor. This is why people share the things they love: the pleasure of watching someone get a massive kick out of something is at least part of the reason the species continues to thrive.
This is not what I was doing when I used to test people with books. The book was given not with the hope that it would make the receiver happy, but with the hope that the receiver wasn’t going to bitterly disappoint me by failing to love it in exactly the same way and to the same degree and for the same reasons that I did. It was a horrible and ungenerous policy, the main effect of which was to make me feel disappointed for no reason on a regular basis. It’s not that the test was technically difficult to pass – the instructions were always very clear and I was always hovering around if you wanted to read any parts out loud and look at what my face was doing. People’s reactions to the books I loved were always more than satisfactory, and if I hadn’t spent a lot of my twenties absolutely hell bent on feeling let down by other people, I would have been content with their assurances that they had laughed at all the same bits I did, and found the same bits especially shattering, and wanted to live in exactly the same section of the fictional house as I did. It was never quite enough, obviously. I was never totally convinced that they had been affected in the same way.
The book that reliably produced the biggest gap between the reaction that I wanted and the reaction that I got was Lucky Jim. I set people up to fail: I loved it so much, and found it so, so, so funny, in a way that I could never hope to put into words, and there was very little chance that I would allow anyone else to articulate it for me. I didn’t know why I loved Lucky Jim so much, or why a paragraph about Dixon tearing his pants in a car “after some bad-tempered leg-play with the gear- and brake-levers” made me burst into loud sobs of mirth, or what it was about the phrase “he saw with passion” sent me absolutely over the edge (“The unavailing hoots of a lorry behind them made Dixon look furtively at Welch, whose face, he saw with passion, held an expression of calm assurance, like an old quartermaster’s in rough weather”), or how to do away with my conviction that I was alone in my enjoyment of it. As I said, I spent a LOT of my twenties actually going out of my way to be disappointed by other people. Lucky Jim is one of the most well-known and well-loved novels of the 20th century. It reliably cracks the top 5 in “Greatest Comic Novel” lists, and there is no real explanation for why I would feel in my heart that I was the only person who really seriously found it funny. The closest I can get to a reason is Sex Life in Ancient Rome Face. As you know, Jim Dixon makes faces when words fail him, or in situations where he is prevented from expressing himself in the way he needs to. Sometimes the mechanics of the face he makes are described in detail (“draw his lower lip in under his top teeth and by degrees retract his chin as far as possible, all this while dilating his eyes and nostrils”, “Dixon rolled his eyes together like marbles and sucked in his cheeks to give a consumptive or wasted appearance to his face, moaning loudly as he crossed the sunlit street to his front door”), and sometimes the name of the face is given: Edith Sitwell face, mandrill face, shot-in-the-back face, sex life in ancient Rome face. It was sex life in ancient Rome face that really ruined my life. No description given, because none is required. If you think about it even briefly, you know what sex life in ancient Rome face looks like. It looks indescribably funny, and so powerful, and like something you will think about on and off until you are dead. I would talk about sex life in ancient Rome face with other people, and we would agree as a team that it was extraordinarily good, and it would all be very hearty and communal, but I would slink off unshaken in my belief that when other people thought about it, they weren’t propelled into another dimension in the same way I was. It’s a weird and lonely way to think, and I hope I don’t sound like a person with way too much time on her hands when I say that it actually made me unhappy. Me, marooned on Sex Life in Ancient Rome Face Island, unable to be normal about the things I thought were funny.
I carried on in this manner for some time, and was miserable for all sorts of reasons entirely unrelated to Lucky Jim. I stopped being miserable a while ago, for reasons that again have very little to do with Lucky Jim, but I don’t think it’s totally a coincidence that things began to pick up for me around the same time I came across this video:
Don’t watch any of the bits of Kingsley Amis talking, because it will only remind you of his turn to the right, and of how he became the kind of old man a lot of us would actively cross the street to avoid. Just watch from about 8:40 onwards, when the interviewer asks him to do the sex life in ancient Rome face and then he does it. It’s SO funny, and so powerful, and exactly what I imagined it would look like. This almost never happens, and I hope I don’t sound like a person with way too much time on my hands when I say that it actually made me feel better about all kinds of things that have nothing to do with Lucky Jim.