Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (19 down, 81 to go)

"They will sell liberty for a quieter life"

This is the first time I’ve read A Clockwork Orange or Anthony Burgess. The book is a dystopian novel, set at an imprecise date in the future, London, England.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a difficult novel to read due to the slang, or more precisely argot (secret language), spoken by the main characters. They speak in Nasdat, the fictional Anglo-Russian argot of teens in future England. When I first started, the text was so unintelligible, I thought my e-reader had badly garbled the text. For example:
This evening in the Korova there was a fair number of vecks and ptitsas and devotchkas and malchicks smecking and peeting away... 

Translation: In the bar, there were a lot of men and women and girls and boys laughing and drinking...

Once I realized this was an intentional device of the author, I printed out a Nasdat lexicon and I was able to comprehend much better. It was slow going at first, but I eventually learned most of the words and could read without checking the lexicon every paragraph.

I'm ambivalent about A Clockwork Orange. At times it is fascinating, and a fairly astute commentary on humanity, but it is also disturbing. Some might even say obscene.

The story is the first-person account of Alex and his three droogs (friends), Pete, Dim, and Georgie. They are hooligans, (a far too generous term), that roam the city streets at night stealing what they want, brutalizing the weak for fun, and molesting women. Alex is by far the most intelligent and therefore the leader. His droogs fear him, and grow resentful of his preeminence.

Like all hooliganism, it’s all fun and games until someone accidentally kills someone and leaves enough evidence to be caught and convicted. That is to say, hardly surprising, Alex ends up in prison.

I suppose the next section is Burgess' indictment of the criminal justice system. Alex, a violent sociopath is imprisoned in close quarters with other criminals, and lo and behold it does nothing to reform him. However, he is eventually chosen for a new reform program the government is experimenting with that promises to return Alex to society, "cured" of criminal tendencies. The method is an extreme aversion therapy, where Alex is forced to watch graphically violent films. He is strapped in, with eyelids clipped open, unable to look away. At the same time, he is given injections that cause nausea, and eventually he becomes ill at the very thought of violence.

He is cured and released to be a model member of society, except, of course, you guessed it, things don’t work out so swimmingly. 

But how things work out depends upon which version of A Clockwork Orange you read. 

Spoiler Alert x 2

The original American publication ends with Alex returning to his old, violent, anti-social ways. The End. But if you read a post 1986 version, it will probably include Burgess’ preferred additional chapter and alternate ending, where Alex forms a new gang of toughs that again terrorize citizens in the night. However, with no real external stimulus or explanation, Alex eventually – just sort of – grows up. He contemplates, or perhaps even resolves, to reform himself, find a wife, start a family, and walk the straight and narrow.

How nice.

Really? I hate the alternate ending, really hate it. It very nearly excuses Alex’ violent past as a youthful indiscretion. It is also the most implausible part of the story, even amid the otherwise fantastic creations of the dystopian fantasy world.

But in spite of all this, there was something I liked: The Clockwork...Orange. Burgess himself offers several different explanations for the title, but they point to this:  Man is a clockwork – a delicate and precise machine, and an orange – a sweet and living thing.

The reader is tempted to approve of the first behavior modification to Alex. But somehow, Burgess manages to make Alex more likeable before he is cured, before he is a clockwork. That's a bit of masterful writing in my opinion, because Alex is pretty detestable. I suppose I am more comfortable with all the follies of man that accompany a free will, rather than a sterile orderly society of soulless machines. I hope this was Burgess' point.

The prison chaplain perhaps explains it best:
He has no real choice, has he? Self-interest, fear of physical pain, drove him to that...He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice.

Film Rendition: I didn't like the 1971 Stanley Kubrick film. Like many of Kubrick's films, it was very "artsy". An imprecise description on my part, but I don't know how else to explain it. I just didn't like it. Additionally, Malcolm McDowell was not convincing as Alex. Neither pro nor con, but the film does not include the final chapter.


1 comment:

  1. I clearly enjoyed this novel a great deal more than you did (it ranks as one of my all time favorites) but its definitely not for everyone. The violence depicted in the novel can certainly be seen as disturbing but its never explicit. Burgess handles it with a deft hand. I had no idea about the alternate ending, very interesting stuff. I read the newest Penguin edition and if I remember correctly, I think it has the alternate ending that you find distasteful. I'll have to check again to be sure. If that is the case, that particular ending actually works for me. Alex had to go through hell with those government experiments so its not like he is coming out of it all unscathed. I also seem to remember that the ending is a little ambiguous as well where it is still possible for Alex to revert back to his old ways but he feels the need to seek redemption and "grow up" so to speak.

    At least we agree that the "clockwork orange" metaphor is brilliant. Great review as always Joseph!


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