Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Real Horrorshow Novel: A Review of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange

I put watching the film of A Clockwork Orange on hold last night in order to watch the Marriage Equality Bill (finally) pass in New York State. As an (almost) lifelong New Yorker and an (absolutely) lifelong member of the LGBT community, yesterday was a proud moment and a victory all at the same time. I didn't want to put off writing this review any more, though, so I'll have to post the film review on another day.

Title: A Clockwork Orange
Author: Anthony Burgess
Edition: Paperback
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co. (1986)
Pages: 213
How I Came By This Book: To be honest, I don't remember exactly what got me interested in reading the book in the first place. I had a friend in college, Patrick, who loved the movie and my downstairs neighbors thought that I was crazy when they found out last year that I hadn't read the book OR seen the film. I know that I originally borrowed it from the library and ended up buying my own copy soon after that. This is my second time reading the book.
Challenges: Read Me Baby, 1 More Time; Books to Movies; GoodReads 2011 Reading Challenge

Synopsis: A vicious fifteen-year-old droog is the central character of this 1963 classic. In Anthony Burgess's nightmare vision of the future, where the criminals take over after dark, the story is told by the central character, Alex, who talks in a brutal invented slang that brilliantly renders his and his friends' social pathology. A Clockwork Orange is a frightening fable about good and evil, and the meaning of human freedom. And when the state undertakes to reform Alex to "redeem" him, the novel asks, "At what cost?"

This edition includes the controversial last chapter not published in the first edition and Burgess's introduction "A Clockwork Orange Resucked."

Review: There are some novels that I love so much that I don't even know where to begin. A Clockwork Orange is one of them. Burgess himself didn't really like the novel and he was especially angry that the American publishers left out the last chapter, 21, for various and sundry (and incomprehensible) reasons. He rants and raves in his "A Clockwork Orange Resucked" piece that adorns the front end of my copy of the novel. I happen to disagree with his take on his novel and think he's either being too harsh or too cynical or too bitter or too...something. For me, this novel is a treasure, one that I enjoy revisiting again and again.

The plot is simple and complex at the same time. A boy named Alex enjoys violence and rape with his droogs (or friends) in a dystopian future England. He crosses his droogs, they rat him out, and he ends up in prison. That's the simple part. The complex bit is from Part II to the end. Alex agrees to be "reformed" using a controversial new technique and finds that he has been left with no personal choice in life. He can't be bad because to do so makes him ill. But he doesn't necessarily want to be good; he's just forced to be to save himself from pain. The rest of the story follows Alex after he's left out of prison and the injustices brought against him by his former victims. There's a bit more to it, but I don't want to give too much away.

There are two things that are usually talked about when this novel is mentioned: violence and language. The former is heavily present throughout the novel and can be a bit much for the squeamish. The things Alex does are inhuman and unconscionable and no one will deny that. But the violence is necessary for the story and I truly believe that it needs to be as horrific as it is. Burgess takes the problem of hooligans, hoodies, and punks and lets it take on an even more sinister twist. Because Alex is so extreme, his story stands out more from the common thug on the street.

The latter, language, is also prevalent but not in the way you may be thinking. I'm not talking about swearing or anything. I'm talking about Nadsat, a slang created by Burgess using Russian words, schoolboy rhyming slang, and other things. It can be hard to read at first but within the first few chapters I found that I was understanding what they were saying with no problem. One of the book's themes is brainwashing and Burgess brainwashes his readers into speaking Nadsat. It's the most unique use of language I've seen in a novel so far and it was one of the things that impressed me most about the book the first time I read it.

I remember the first time I read this book it was while I was working at the library and the girl I was working with thought I was nuts when the following exchange occurred:

Me: Oh my God, this is the best sentence I've ever read.
Her: ????
Me: "I kuppetted a gazetta, my idea being to get ready for plunging back into normal jeezny again by viddying what was ittying on in the world."
Her: What the f***?
Me: (translating) "I bought a newspaper, my idea being to get ready for plunging back into normal life again by seeing what was going on in the world."
Her: Um...okay...

It isn't a particularly profound sentence, but it was one of those sentences that made me fully realize that I wasn't just reading the Nadsat words, I was understanding them. When I reread the book this time and I came upon that sentence again, I remembered that moment and was again struck by my ability (without a glossary) to pony what Alex was skazatting. I've talked to other people who have read the novel who have had similar moments, so I know that I'm neither crazy nor totally alone.

Alex himself, your humble narrator, is a violent, horrible young man who deserves to go to prison. No one will argue that least I hope not. His crimes are equal to the sentence he received and, in some respects, he actually probably deserved more jail time. Yet, despite the fact that you're sickened by what he does, you can't help but like him. He's funny, oddly sympathetic, and roguishly charming. In a way, the reader is brainwashed again, this time to feel sorry for him. I for one don't mind this at all. A) it's a novel and B) sympathy is a necessary emotion to feel for him during Part III of the novel and having it spring up all of a sudden would seem insincere and implausible. To feel it for him almost from the beginning makes feeling it for him when he really deserves it all the more real and powerful.

The rest of the characters, with the exception of the prison charlie (the chaplain), are sort of cardboard-y in comparison, but I don't see this as a fault. Alex, as the main character and the center of his own universe, is going to be the most vibrant character in his own story. Burgess does such a great job of creating a dynamic and interesting character and has his psyche mapped out in such a brilliant way. I could never see this having been told in anything but first person narration and I think the story would have suffered had it been in third. You get so far inside Alex's head that you practically become Alex for the duration of the novel, which may be why some people have such a hard time with it.

I've seen a lot of people say that they really hated this novel, but what I'm wondering is if perhaps what they were hating was the fact that they were immersing themselves in someone else's crimes, in someone else's sociopathy. It can be difficult at times to watch Alex beating up an old man or raping a defenseless woman, but I don't think the novel would have been as powerful without such brutal, vivid acts. The last chapter, especially, would not have carried as much weight if Alex hadn't been coming from such an ultra-violent background.

As for the last chapter--the real last chapter, 21--I am one of the ones who feel as if the novel wouldn't have resonated with me as much if I had read it when the American copies ended it at number 20. Kubrick's film, which I'll be talking about either tomorrow or the next day, ends where the original American edition ended, making it a much more chilling film and, obviously, a much more chilling novel. I don't want to give away the ending, so I won't talk about it, although if you read anything that Burgess has written on this book, he sort of gives it all away. I just think that that chapter ties everything up nicely and I enjoy seeing what's become of Pete, one of Alex's droogs from before he went to jail.

The last thing I want to talk about is the dystopian elements within the novel. Unlike some dystopian books, we are so fully immersed within this world that we can't actually see it. If this had been a third person narrative, we probably would have gotten into what had led to the current state of society and what exactly was wrong with it. Because we see it through Alex's eyes and because he is part of society's problems, the most we learn is that they're trying to clear out the prisons so that they can make way for "political prisoners." Other than that, we are "treated" to a personal joyride through this dystopia, viewing it from the vantage point of someone who likes the lawlessness and fear. Burgess doesn't need to spend time with lengthy explanations; he can just show us the horrors. As someone who loves dystopian novels, I find this to be refreshing, unique, and immensely terrifying.

I'm obviously giving A Clockwork Orange 5 out of 5 Gabriels. This book isn't for everyone. There are people who will vehemently hate it for various reasons and they are entitled to their opinion. Some will recognize the books merits, but would never consider it a "favorite." I'm one of those (possibly crazy?) people who will revisit this novel over and over again.



  1. I hadn't realised the American edition missed the last chapter as well!

    I know a lot of people have said they didn't like the real final chapter because they thought it cleaned up the story too much, but personally I think that by excluding it you miss the emphasis that Burgess intended the story to take (I don't want to inclde spoilers so I won't go into any detail). Not to mention it ruins the symmetry of the book, which you can tell is of extreme importance to Burgess if you read his rants on the subject!

    I think this is the reason Burgess had such mixed feelings about it, because after Kubrick's film adaptation people would take Kubrick's version as the complete/real version, and so few people seem to realise that the book is actually supposed to go in a completely different direction. I also think he might struggle with how popular this book is because of the connections it has to his wife's attack/rape and that must conjure all kinds of conflicting emotions.

    On a different note, how rad is nadsat! In my edition there is an intro written by a Burgess scholar and they quote Burgess as saying that he wanted to force the readers to pick up a Russian dictionary, and force them to learn something. I love it!

    Great book and a great review Gabe!

  2. I'm on the middle ground with this one and I do prefer the film.

  3. Kayleigh: I didn't realize the Australian edition didn't have it either. LOL

    I agree. I think the last chapter was needed for myriad reasons. If I were Burgess I would have been angry, too. Taking something that I had worked so hard on and then telling me that part of it just "didn't cut it" would be like a slap in the face.

    I wasn't aware of the story with Burgess' wife. I'll have to look into that.

    I'm always tempted to use Nadsat in everyday conversation but I don't know how many people would get it.


    Ellie: The film is incredible, I just wish they'd used more Nadsat.

  4. The Australian edition has the final chapter, what I meant to say was that I hadn't realised the book had been truncated in America, I thought it was just the film. You learn something new everyday!

    Don't quote me on it, but the basic story was that his wife was attacked (and raped I think) by a group of soldiers when they were living in S.E Asia, and (this is where I might be stretching my memory) I think there was a health issue related to the attack, either she miscarried a child or it contributed to her early death? Something along those lines. Anyway, that scene with the author and his wife is basically based on the attack they experienced (except Burgess hadn't been there), which was why I thought that perhaps it's a bit bittersweet to have such a successful book that would be a constant reminder of horrible moment of your life.

    If I knew enough people who had read the book I'd break out the nadsat far more often, unfortunately barely anyone I know has read it. Sad.