Given that I’ve pulled together a reading list of mostly popular and classic books, I’ve stumbled across a bunch that have been made into movies. I only mention that here because this is one of the very few times I’ve actually seen the film adaptation prior to reading the book, so I had some idea of what was up with A Clockwork Orange before I read it.
A Clockwork Orange, the novella, was published in 1962, but reached peak saturation after the Kubrick film adaptation was released in 1971. I saw the movie sometime in my mid-teens, fancying myself a bit disaffected and angsty, but hadn’t read the book until now. In terms of genre, it’s a hard one to pin down. I’ve seen it referred to as science fiction, which almost fits, but I would describe it as truly dystopian (as opposed to the cutesy Young Adult type of dystopian to which we’ve all become accustomed). Burgess wrote the whole thing in three weeks, and by all accounts he thought it kind of sucked, and yet it remains the work for which he is best known.
Shit gets very real, right from the outset. The narrator is Alex, a hardened juvenile delinquent with a passion for classical music. He spends a night with his friends, stealing cars and beating the living daylights out of unsuspecting civilians. The next day, he lures two very young girls home from the record store, and brutally rapes them in his bedroom. At this point, we’re only forty pages in. I mean, I’d heard that the book depicted a “subculture of youth violence”, but when this is the starting point… well, that description doesn’t seem to cut it, does it?
As A Clockwork Orange unfolds, Burgess just flat out makes up his own words. He called it “Nasdat”, a kind of Anglo-Russian slang. I’d imagine it’s a lot like reading a book written in a language in which you’re almost fluent – it gets easier and easier, but you still find yourself stumbling on a word now and then. It’s less like reading and more like a jigsaw puzzle, piecing together the context clues to work out what the hell is going on.
For some reason reading about the violence, delivered rapid-fire in this nonsense language, is a lot more confronting than seeing it on the screen. All of the nonsense language in the world can’t cloak or soften it. Perhaps I’m desensitised to violence in film and television (aren’t we all?), but not so much with books; in fact, I don’t think I had ever read a truly violent book… until now. I like to think I’ve got a fairly strong stomach for this kind of stuff, but Burgess really put it to the test. “Anti-hero” doesn’t quite suffice in describing Alex – he is unsympathetic in the extreme. I didn’t think I could dislike a narrator more than I disliked Nabakov’s Humbert Humbert (from Lolita), but here we are.
Anyway, Alex gets caught by the authorities about a third of the way into the book, which is the first indication that something’s a bit hinky. In a traditional goodies-catch-the-baddie story, you’d expect him to get caught at the very end, after a bitching chase scene or something. In A Clockwork Orange, the actual story isn’t Alex’s crime(s), it’s his punishment.
The only bit of Burgess’ story that I didn’t quite buy was the politics of Alex and his “droogs” (translates roughly to “homies”). Alex only gets caught because one of his droogs beats him with a bike chain and leaves him unable to escape from the cops, after an earlier leadership squabble. The cops don’t believe Alex’s bullshit story (about being led astray and lured into crime by a group of violent thugs), so he goes to prison. He gets by inside by cozying up to the prison chaplain and snitching (sometimes honestly, sometimes not) on his fellow inmates. His droogs inside end up dogging him too, blaming him for the death of a cellmate (when really they all got a few kicks in). He bitches about their hypocrisy and wails about their violent perversions, but doesn’t count himself among them. None of this seems like it would hold up in the real world of gangland violence. Snitches get stitches, after all, and a little bitch like Alex would be wearing concrete boots before long. It felt like maybe the only mechanism that Burgess had to drive Alex first into prison, and then into an experimental punishment/”cure”.
“In a sense, choosing to be deprived of the ability to make an ethical choice, you have in a sense really chosen the good.” – Prison Chaplain
Ah, yes, the punishment. As a psychology graduate (yes, I studied psych in a former life), it was both fascinating and (frankly) offensive to see old, basic concepts of behaviourism bastardised by a desperate government. Burgess called it the Ludovico technique – a form of aversion therapy, where the authorities injected Alex with nausea-inducing drugs while forcing him to watch violent films (the logical conclusion being that he becomes physically sickened at the thought of violence). In that sense, the book really takes aim behavioural psychology, but that’s just one thread of the ugly sweater vest. Is goodness still “good” if it’s not a choice? Given that we’re all exposed to persuasive powers on a daily basis, do any of us really still have “choices”? Is violence still violence when it is perpetrated by the State? Unraveling the philosophical questions raised by A Clockwork Orange would take a decade. For now, I’ll just get on with it, because thinking about all of this for too long really bums my flow.
Alex gets out, apparently “cured”, but finds himself homeless, rejected by his parents and looking for a way to end it all. He is attacked by a former victim, the police who rescue him turn out to be former droogs who just beat him further, and when he stops at a house to ask for help – guess what – the resident is the husband of a former victim, too. Alex is really shit out of luck. It’s all very convenient, but at least the story moves quickly and there’s no bones about what Burgess is doing.
Alex ends up in the hands of a political group who are highly critical of the current government, and want to turn Alex into a symbol of police brutality. Facing a life as a cautionary-tale puppet, and realising that his “cure” has also made listening to his beloved Beethoven unbearable, he figures now is as good a time as any to execute his suicide plan. He cocks it up, winding up in hospital only to find that he seems to have been “cured of the cure” in recovery. He can go back to a life of violence and orchestral music without enforced illness and revulsion. Lovely!
In the original American publication, the story ended here, but there’s actually a 21st chapter, which was included in my edition. I guess this true ending is “happy” in a sense – Alex decides to give up his life of violent crime to seek a wife and have a child. Only, he acknowledges that, try as he might to renounce his life of crime, he won’t be able to exert any control over his hypothetical son who will go on to fuck everything up the way that he did, and have a son who goes on to do the same. So everything’s fucked, and none of it will get any better, even if Alex redeems himself in a life of domesticity (so maybe not that “happy” an ending after all). The book is arguably more realistic without this closing passage, and Kubrick famously refused to include it in his film adaptation.
A thought that struck me in the final chapters: is this what The Catcher In The Rye could have been, or tried to be? Funnily enough, A Clockwork Orange – undoubtedly more violent and confronting in basically every respect – didn’t face anywhere near the same level of censorship. Removal of the book from a handful of schools and libraries in the U.S. only happened after the release of the film, which was substantially more controversial. Really, it’s the ultimate case of literary one-upmanship; Burgess took the disaffected youth trope to its logical extreme, and forcefully confronted his readership in places that Salinger only gently poked.
I couldn’t possibly argue that A Clockwork Orange is an enjoyable read. I don’t think that I could bring myself to recommend that somebody read it, but simultaneously I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading it either. My tl;dr summary would be that everyone is evil, there are no good guys, and everything sucks. If you can accept that reality with a heaping serve of extreme violence, then this might be the book for you.
My favourite Amazon reviews of A Clockwork Orange:
- “…. If the book had been written using the King ‘s English, it certainly would not have been a candidate for the Book of the Month Club. However, as I read the last page, I felt as if I had stopped to eat at an ethnic restaurant in this ethnic neighborhood where I ordered my meal from a menu written completely in this bizarre language, but I knew precisely what I wanted to eat.” – Barbara Moore
- “I cannot like this book. How did this become a classic? The gibberish throughout hurts me. I feel dumber just attempting to read this ‘book’. My feelings are the characters are stupid. They beat people up, smoke, and cause trouble all in a language that is not English. Not fun to read. Not engaging. Not anything worth recommending. If I wanted to read nonsense I would find Dr Seuss books, at least those make sense.” – Amazon Customer
- “the negative actions depicted in this book are not a good thing… duh. that was tony’s point! ‘no good, no bad’ idiocy makes tony barf his other lung. take responsibility for yourselves!!! (read that again!) try shock therapy if you’re still watching sports on TV. help someone today!” – A customer