A Clockwork Orange

This is an odd book, but a good one at that, or should I skazat ‘Horrorshow’. It is a truly violent book, with some tough scenes to read, including a gang rape. But it isn’t idolising the violence, it is using it to make us question our ideals and what freewill really means.

Warning, a slightly disturbing gif below from the movie. 

A Clockwork Orange scene from the 1971 Stanley Kubrick film. Via Gwendal Uguen on flickr
A Clockwork Orange scene from the 1971 Stanley Kubrick film. Via Gwendal Uguen on flickr

One of the more challenging aspects of the book is the language, because Burgess has created Nadsat slang which is found in more sentences than not. Some of the words he gives a ‘translation’ for, others are easy to get from their context like “Then I said in a very shocked type goloss…” (so goloss=voice). Others you can’t quite gleam the actual meaning, but you get the idea. My favourite was that cigarettes were called ‘cancer’. At first this is really disorientating, and I’m sure has put a number of people off, especially students forced to read it in school. But, you get used to it after a while, and it actually is really creative and interesting. Some of the quotes are great because of it:

Then, brothers, it came. Oh, bliss, bliss and heaven. I lay all nagoy to the ceiling, my gulliver on my rookers on the pillow, glazzies closed, rot open in bliss, slooshying the sluice of lovely sounds. Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh

Saying “I lay naked to the ceiling, my head on my hands on the pillow, eyes closed, mouth open in bliss, hearing the sluice of lovely sounds.” Doesn’t quite have the same ring. It also tones down the violence.

The story follows Alex, who is our narrator, and an unreliable one at that, who is 15 years old at the beginning. He has his gang of friends, who, like many young people in the story, run amock during the night, stealing, stabbing, raping. Soon enough, he is betrayed, and kills a woman, and is sent to prison. There, once again, he is betrayed by his ‘droogs’ to another murder, this time sent to undergo a reformation to stop him being evil. They force him to watch acts of violence, all the while making him feel ill, causing conditioning so that later if he tries to commit an act of violence, he feels ill so tries to do good instead to stop the pain. The last part shows him again being betrayed (a pattern perhaps?), but this time from anti-government supporters who want to use him to overturn the government’s popularity.

It’s not really until towards the end that we start to hear Burgess ‘idea’ for the story come through – is it better for a person to have freewill and choose to be bad, or for them to have no freewill at all and be good, or as he puts it, more elegantly:

Is it better for a man to have chosen evil than to have good imposed upon him?

Burgess says the former, and I’m inclined to agree. Freewill is important, and while ideally everybody would act ‘good’, that isn’t going to happen. It’s too dangerous to have someone impose their idea of ‘good’ on another in such an extreme sense. Because how do you ultimately define good. And then the definition can be changed to ensure that the government is never opposed and policies never debated, so it becomes totalitarian.

Alex is an interesting character, he is a bad character for all the violence he commits, but you feel a little sorry for him when he is betrayed again, and again, and then is tortured, and his joy of music turned sour, and how his parents have replaced him. Then you don’t, cause this was all his fault. Then you do, cause it’s not all his fault, there are societal causes too. His love of classical music was a nice touch, and I quite liked the refutation of the idea that ‘refined tastes’ somehow equals a ‘refined individual’ who is good and proper, while that can be true in some instances, it is also false, just as the opposite can be both true and false. a

What is so disappointing is that the American version until the 80’s (and hence the one the film was based on – which was only allowed in the UK in 1999) doesn’t include the final chapter. Honestly publishers, let your authors do what they want, it is their work after all. The chapter is when Alex decides he wants to move on from his old life, and start a family. But he also importantly realises that his son will likely be just like him, and there’s basically nothing he can do about it. Which I don’t quite agree with, but it is an important aspect of the book.

I thought that this was a really good, complex book. Deservedly up there with Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Fahrenheit 451, in the classic dystopias.

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