Illusory Reality

A blog of speculative fiction

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Location: United Kingdom

Friday, July 14, 2006

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

A Clockwork Orange is an incredibly violent book, and a very disturbing one. So be warned. It certainly won't appeal to everyone - the Wasp Factory was described as a "depraved" piece of literature when it was released, but it has nothing on this. The protagonist, Alex (well named - A-lex - without law) is a typical 15 year old of the dystopian future - he enjoys theft, rape, murder and torture with his gang of friends. The first section of the book details these activities and Alex enjoys this. He is a thoroughly unlikeable protagonist, and as this is written in the first person, it forces you to engage with his every thought as he violently assaults innocent victims, sharing his every laugh and cry with you. Yet, somehow, on some level, we can sympathise with him. While abhorring the violence and rape, there is still a level of emotional power when he is betrayed by his friends and captured by the police. He may be a violent, despicable character - but despite that, he is a teenager, who retains a certain naivety and innocence, despite his terrible acts. Much of what he puts on is an act of bravado, attempts to impress his friends, to demonstrate his position of leader of the gang - Alex is an entirely believable character, and in the context, more than just a psychopath. For ultraviolence and rape are common amongst the cities' youth. If you were to take the hysteria that exists about crime and youth today, and were to make it real, you would soon see a world not dissimilar from that of A Clockwork Orange. And while the acts of the characters are unpalatable, it creates an important friendship between them. A Clockwork Orange is not just about its central theme of free will vs forced morality (as Alex is subjected to a programme to remove his ability to do anything but good), it is about the relationship between these characters and a changing world.

A Clockwork Orange is not an easy book to read. This isn't, surprisingly, because of the content, but because of the style. It is written in Burgess' invented slang language, nadsat, which derives almost entirely from Russian. At first sight it is very offputting, but it is very effective at conveying atmosphere. It reminds you, always, that these are real teenagers, who don't look through to the consequences. An example (this is quoted in the introduction in my copy):

"All right, Dim", I said. "Now for the other veshch, Bog help us all." So he did the strong-man on the devotchka, who was still creech creech creeching away in very horrorshow four-in-a-bar, locking her rookers from the back, while I ripped away at this and that and the other, the others going haw haw haw still, and real good horrorshow groodies they were that then exhibited their pink glazzies, O my brothers, while I untrussed and got ready for the plunge.

The strange language also has a dampening effect on what are truly horrifying scenes. The prose also reveals other aspects of Alex's character - he is not ill-educated, and often takes on a Shakespearean tone in a slightly ironic tone ( "Oh my father", I said, "Fear not. He canst take care of himself, verily" ). The first person perspective also helps to emphasise his one other true passion in life - music. It is an interesting quirk of personality that it is classical music he is passionate about and he is particularly dismissive of his age group's love of pop. His enthusiasm for music, and particularly Beethoven, is shown to be genuine through the prose, and therefore, its loss, as terrible.

His transformation is genuinely moving, despite his background. The loss of the choice to do evil is shown to be almost as terrible as the evil itself. Alex is the first to undergo this "treatment" and initially he enthusiastically agrees, expecting a painless, quick way out of prison. But within days he is yearning for the prison life again. But the true cruelty of this punishment is that it removes the pleasure of music for him due to an oversight, and that is the one aspect Alex can't tolerate. This loss is a terrible one and the reader feels for Alex, whatever his past. Later he is forced to confront the consequences of his actions, and soon sees that the adult world is no less cruel than the children's. There is heartbreaking irony when he is confronted with kindness by one of his victims. Incidents like these are what make the book more than a crude exploration of a single theme - it is both simple and complex, an entertaining and despicable story, with a clear message, but it is not didactic fiction by any means. A Clockwork Orange is a masterpiece - irritating, sickening and depressing, the virtuoso performace of Burgess challenges the reader on many levels. I would give it 9.5 out of 10. Most people have seen the film. Now go and read the book.

A note on the final chapter: This is ommitted from the US version, but it is an important chapter. It shows that perhaps Alex, eventually, achieves maturity and redemption. But it is not a simple happy ending - for while Alex achieves this maturity, as all people eventually do, the youth will continue their orgy of theft, violence and rape. Both endings are equally depressing, and both are effective - but this final chapter is, tellingly, the 21st, the age of maturity.

(This review is of the UK version: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0141182601/026-2112759-5758025?v=glance&n=266239 ,rather than the one with the cover above - the last chapter is included in the UK version, but not in the US version).

5 Comments:

Anonymous keigu said...

The most interesting thing about nadsat is that one learns it naturally by reading it over and over again in context. It is how we should learn all language. If you appreciate nadsat you will enjoy the use of Japanese terms and coinages based on the original (eg. "bloomshade" for hananokage in Cherry Blossom Epiphany) and "Rise, Ye Sea Slugs!" ("slugboat" for a boat harvesting sea cucumbers)by robin d. gill

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