A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
“What’s it going to be then, eh?”
Normally I start off these reviews with a digital photo of the book cover for cleanliness and clarity. But this particular copy of A Clockwork Orange was a gift given to me by my lovely friend River. Therefore I thought I’d instead use this shot I took of it on my shelf with the Alex DeLarge Funko Mystery Mini I got in a massive blind box haul!
A Clockwork Orange is one of those classic books that I’ve had on my list of “things I really should read” for years. I’ve long since seen the movie and was very curious about how it matched up to the book. Sadly I just never seemed to get around to picking up a copy. Cue River, who found this out and just couldn’t let the injustice stand! She had an extra copy and shipped it my way immediately. Thanks again, River!
“He looked a malenky bit poogly when he viddied the four of us like that…”
The first thing I have to mention about A Clockwork Orange is that some people may find it a little difficult to read, or at least to get into, because of the language. I don’t want to deter anybody; I just want to give a heads up. A large portion of the book is written in “nadsat slang” (teen-speak), which is, according to Burgess, a “Russified” version of English. This can be quite confusing, especially in the beginning chapters, because our humble Narrator rarely explains the strange words he’s using.
Eventually a few things begin to come clear. “Cutter”, “deng”, and “pretty polly” all refer to money. “Bezoomny” means mad or crazy. A “droog” is a friend, a “devotchka” is a young lady, and a “chelloveck” is a young man. But there are plenty more – see this Appendix for a list – and many only come up once or twice, leaving you no chance to discern their nature. It’s left up to the reader to try to figure it out, and if you’re anything like me you won’t have a clue. Unless, perhaps, you’re familiar with Russian.
But immersion is one of the best forms of learning tools.
As I said, the confusing slang shouldn’t be a deterrent, as it slowly becomes more like background noise. By the time I was halfway into the book I was finding myself hardly even noticing the slang. Some of it I’d naturally picked up as I went. Some I still didn’t get, but I found myself understanding the general context of what the sentence was saying anyway. All in all it didn’t both me enough to ruin my enjoyment of the book. In fact, it did enhance the feel of the story. Our Narrator is a teenager, after all, and who the hell understands teenagers?
Moving away from the language…
For anyone who has neither read the book nor seen the movie, the overarching story is about the violence of youth. Along with that comes the importance of free will. Eventually the disgusting nature of government and politics is mixed in as well (although I’m not certain Burgess intended to express it that way, or if it was just a side-effect).
Our Humble Narrator is Alex DeLarge, a teen who has two obsessions in life: classical music and ultra-violence. He and his “droogs” are the epitome of evil, and I don’t say that lightly. They aren’t just hoodlums. They aren’t just thieves. They’re sociopaths who do whatever (and whomever) they wish. To these ends, some might find A Clockwork Orange to be a difficult read. This is a far warning. There really is “ultra-violence” in this story. Burgess takes the idea of teenagers being impulsive, self-involved little bastards and takes it to the extreme. A night on the town for this group is bashing a few faces in and maybe breaking into someone’s home to have their way with the lady of the house.
But here’s the twist…
As brutal as our Narrator’s actions are, what makes A Clockwork Orange a particularly weird read is that we’re meant to empathize with him. When the state takes extreme measures in order to redeem Alex (not a spoiler! It’s on the back of the book!) we’re meant to sympathize with his plight. They’re attempting to “fix” him by literally taking away his ability to do the things he does. In this way, the book is a very interesting commentary on what freedom and free will are, and how important they are when compared to the safety and comfort of society.
Ultimately, for this reason, the story gave me a feeling of disjointed loss; I didn’t know what I wanted the outcome to be. On the one hand Alex was clearly a psycho who deserved to burn for the things he’d done. On the other hand, he had one redeeming quality that was inadvertently stolen from him along with his free will. I was – as I believe Burgess intended – able to feel bad for him. I wanted him to pay for his sins, but I also wanted those who’d destroyed his mind to pay for theirs.
Stop playing with my emotions, authors!
It’s a rare thing, I think, to be able to hate a character one moment, and root for them the next. Especially rare is when those two oxymoronic notions play leap frog in your head, bouncing from one to the other and back again. To my recollection I believe only one other author ever accomplished this particular feat with me, and that was George R.R. Martin of A Song of Ice and Fire fame. In his world people make evil decisions one moment, and moral ones the next, so that a villain may turn out to become your favorite hero. Then he’ll turn around and do something horrible that makes you feel psychotic for ever liking them for even a moment.
Burgess’s Alex DeLarge is the same way. He’s an evil, horrid little wretch who you want to suffer. But then does suffer, in a rather horrible way, so you can’t help rooting for him, at least a little bit. Yet at the same time you still think he’s horrid. It’s a very complex mental conundrum.
The 21st Chapter
My copy of the book also has the missing twenty-first chapter. When the book was first released in the US, this final chapter was dropped out with the vague explanation of “Americans won’t get it”. Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation followed suit and ended with the second-to-last chapter, although this may have been for unrelated reasons owing to artistic expression. Having now read the final chapter – and having seen the film – I’m not entirely certain what they thought Americans wouldn’t “get”. It’s seems to be a perfectly straightforward concept to me, but then…no spoilers, so you’ll have to judge for yourself.
In conclusion, I would personally say that Burgess got across the point he was trying to make with this story. It may have been done in an especially extreme way, making Alex out to be the worst possible example he could fathom. Regardless, by the end of that final chapter (the real final chapter) it definitely made sense as to where Burgess had been going with it all. He made his point about free will. He made his point about government and authority. And he made his point about youth, and the inevitability of youth passing into age.
A Clockwork Orange is definitely worth a read, especially if you’re a fan of the film, or if the film left a hundred questions in your head. Burgess was inside Alex’s mind, and was able to portray that mind in a frighteningly thorough fashion. Grab this one for your bookshelf now!