Book Title: A Clockwork Orange
Author: Anthony Burgess
Style: Chapter Book
Target Audience: Adult
Genres: Fiction, Dystopian
Page Count: 213
Format: eBook (library)
Reading time: 3 hours
Date Finished: 1/22/17
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My impressions: One of my rules for this year is that when I start a book, I have to finish it. It’s a good thing I have this rule in place, because the first few chapters of A Clockwork Orange were so difficult for me to read that I probably wouldn’t have finished the book if I hadn’t been compelled to; it’s written in such a stylized prose that I seriously question whether or not it should be considered a classic work of literature.
I would not be alone in that assessment, since the author Anthony Burgess, in his note at the beginning of the book, seems to dislike the novel and describes it as something he banged out in three weeks for some cash. Part of his distaste for the novel seems to be the legacy created by the movie (based on the American edition of the novel, which was missing the final chapter), which glorifies the violence the author was speaking out against. But I suspect the other part of it is that he disliked how the public received the book after the film, praising it for the things Stanley Kubrick saw in it and missing the literary devices he was attempting to use to examine his awful anti-hero, the 15-year old Alex.
I’ve never been able to sit through the movie (the graphic scenes of rape and violence juxtaposed against the cheerful classical music always make me get up and leave in disgust), but from what I understand, the film is fairly faithful to the book, preserving the extensive slang of the narration and the orgy of violence that Alex and his “droogs” indulge in. The difference is that in the book, the narration is so peppered with invented slang like “rookers” (hands) and “malchicks” (young men) and “ptitsas” (young women) that you have to read some chapters a couple of times just to understand what actually happened in the scenes. This was intended by Burgess; the story is written in such a way that a young man is telling the tale of his youth in the language of his culture, and in doing so, he obscures the horrific details in a manner that makes them readable so that they’ll be shocking after they’ve been absorbed.
Alex is not a likable character; while he has some obvious intelligence and cultural refinement, he’s also a scheming sociopath who leaps to violent actions and who enjoys pain and destruction. Within the first section of the book (the first 50 pages or so), Alex kills an old woman whose home is overrun by cats, drugs and rapes two 10-year-old runaways, assaults his own gang and another gang, and destroys the life of an author and the author’s wife by brutal action, rape and the destruction of the manuscript of a book called A Clockwork Orange that cannily offers the theme of the Burgess novel.
The second third of the book is about Alex’s imprisonment (where he kills a fellow prisoner) and controversial treatment to make him associate violence with pain. The treatment goes far enough to make him associate all pleasure derived from art and music with pain, and the central idea is that he loses his free will in the process – he’s made into a good citizen, but at the expense of losing any ability to feel good.
In the third section, Alex emerges from his treatment finding a world that has gratefully moved on without him – his parents have rented out his room and the police have taken his things to pay restitution to his victims and those he knew before are either dead or have moved on as they’ve grown up (including one gang member who’s now a police officer). Alex runs afoul of past victims and is used by a group of dissidents (including the writer whose life he ruined) to prove his treatment is ineffective. The government eventually “cures” him of his pain associations and his appreciation of art – and lust for violence – return.
And that’s where the original American version ended. But the full version I read continues on to Alex forming a new gang, but finding less and less pleasure in violence. He sees another former gang member who’s now a working man and happily married (having abandoned even the slang of his youth), and Alex decides to take that course himself. He ends the book from a vantage point further in the future talking about his own children, and how he knows he won’t be able to stop them from being violent themselves. He’s outgrown his sociopathic need to destroy, but he also has perspective on how his youthful spirit was what drove him to it.
While that sounds interesting on paper, the book was not a pleasure to get through. Aside from the slang, the prose is not terribly descriptive, and there are moments of action that occur so quickly that they’re easily missed. The dialogue is sparse, and the characters aren’t well-developed or particularly memorable. Had it not been for the Kubrick film filling in all those gaps, I doubt very much this book would have been remembered past the 1960s when it was written.
It’s also worth noting that the story explores the notion of good and evil in response to the culture of the day (B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning seems to be a particular target), and I feel like the central theme the author was working towards was that in order for human beings to feel, they must have free will to do good or evil, even if the cost of that is people like Alex being in the world, and that the best we can hope is that they’ll outgrow their impulses. Unfortunately, the way the story is told, it’s very easy for that message to be missed, and to make matters worse, I suspect those who encounter this story will do so through the film (which ends with the idea that there is no cure), not the novel.
In the end, I found this book interesting, but question its worth as classic literature. I would also recommend avoiding it unless you’re willing to pick up a paper copy; it was tremendously hard to flip back and forth in the ebook edition, and I promise it’s a near-necessity as you decipher the meaning of the slang words.