Book review

A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess

This cult classic novella is narrated by protagonist Alex, 15-years-old at the beginning of the story, and a violent psychopath. The story opens with Alex and his friends committing acts of ‘ultra-violence’ (a term Burgess coined) – stealing, assaulting, raping random strangers – and it isn’t until after this that Alex’s age and schoolboy status is revealed. Alex enjoys violence and being in control, and feels no remorse. He narrates his exploits without shame, and is honest about both the things he does, and the things that are done to him. He weeps at the unfairness he feels he’s been subjected to by his parents, friends, the police, politicians, and so on. Alex is an immature teenager; he whines about the way others treat him, despite his own appalling behaviour – an evil Holden Caulfield, if you will. He’s a conundrum, defying the teenager stereotypes – intelligent, witty, fond of classical music, yet he bullies his parents, terrorises the public, and hurts people for fun.

After being imprisoned, Alex is selected to be a guinea pig in a brainwashing experiment which will prevent him from being able to hurt people. The technique, a form of classical conditioning, causes him to associate physical pain in his own body with any thoughts of violence, and thus be incapable of violence. After the treatment Alex is thrown out of prison with only the clothes on his back, and nowhere to go. This leads to him being exploited by a group of people, for their own political gains. This is not a narrator that it’s easy to like or root for, but by the end of the book some readers may feel some a sliver of sympathy for him.

Burgess spent time overseas in several places including Russia and British Malaya. He enjoyed languages, and was inspired by his travels and this interest to create ‘Nadsat’ – a slang language of teenagers, based on Russian, with some Cockney and other elements thrown in, including a distinct Shakespearean influence. Alex narrates and speaks to peers in Nadsat, but uses Standard English with other people. I’m the sort of reader who gets into a book’s language within the first couple of pages, for example if it’s written phonetically to show the dialect (such as ‘The Colour Purple’, by Alice Walker) – it took me a bit longer to get into the language used in this one, as it’s so dense (you can Google a ‘Nadsat to English’ glossary to help you read it), but I did get into the swing of it in the end. Burgess apparently intended for the language to be a form of brainwashing – the reader gets so accustomed to it, that by the end of the book they understand it, and want to use it themselves. This brainwashing worked on me – less than half way through, and I wanted to call my ‘droogs’ (friends), have a ‘smeck’ (laugh), and refer to everything as being ‘horrorshow’ (great). I also really wanted a cup of hot milky ‘chai’ (tea) – Alex’s drink of choice – and I don’t even like tea.

Legend has it that Burgess wrote the novella in 3 weeks, after returning from overseas and finding England changed, with increasing social unrest and an emerging teenage counterculture. I can well imagine Burgess was inspired by a series of spiralling ‘what if?’ questions: what if people behaved like this; what if we could condition people against bad behaviour; what if some people just enjoyed violence… In contrast to the amazing language, and pretty well-developed dystopian textworld, I feel the plot is weak – there is no sense of climax and falling action, and the ending seems sudden – I imagine this is because of the short writing time. It’s said that Burgess himself was unsure about the final chapter – the US publisher decided not to use it, and the Stanley Kubrick movie was based on the US version of the book. I wonder how different this novella would have looked if Burgess had put it away for a few months, then returned to it?

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