Having seen the film a few years ago, I knew what a horrorshow to expect, what terrible things Alex the most humble narrator would force me to viddy. But it is one thing to know, and another to see it with your own glazzies. Let me just say that — though I raced through the book and read it in two days — I am still left with rather mixed feelings about it all.
I’m going to be lazy and post the cover blurb from my copy.
Fifteen-year-old Alex doesn’t just like ultra-violence — he also enjoys rape, drugs, and Beethoven’s Ninth. He and his gang rampage through a dystopian future, hunting for terrible thrills. But when Alex finds himself at the mercy of the state and subject to the ministrations of Dr Brodsky, the government psychologist, he discovers that fun is no longer the order of the day.
A Clockwork Orange is a book most people will have heard about, but not necessarily have read, perhaps frightened off by its controversial reputation. And the reputation is deserved — it is violent, disturbing, occasionally sickening, but nonetheless insightful and thought-provoking.
The terrible violence is (of course) unsettling. It definitely makes it difficult to connect with Alex initially, him being the platonic ideal of an anti-hero. The fact that Alex shows no remorse for his violence, rather enjoys it immensely, is pretty disturbing — particularly because it is so well conveyed. Alex is not just the main character; he is the narrator. What you read are his unfiltered thoughts about violence, his sick pleasure in grabbing an unwilling woman and giving her the old in-out-in-out. This directness is off-putting and I could see why people would be turned off from reading the book.
However, those that find it within themselves to push past the violence may discover what I feel is the true message of the book: not one of glorifying violence, but of underlining the importance of free will. Burgess takes Alex — the most horrible person you could imagine — and strips him of his ability to choose to the point that you empathize with him. It was with an almost guilty horror that, halfway through the book, I realized I felt sorry for Alex and was rooting for him. When Alex chose to commit crimes, he was still a man. When he is then conditioned to act good, he is less than a man — he is a clockwork orange.
Of course, Alex’s “goodness” is never true; he is behaving well only out of self-interest, to avoid pain. This raises another interesting discussion: the root of good and evil, and the idea that it is our choice. After all, Alex’s behaviour when under conditioning was superficially good, but spurred by evil. Is this true goodness? No, I don’t think so — the change must come from within.
Thorny themes aside, Clockwork gave me food for thought in other ways, particularly with regards to the style in which it is written. Those familiar with the film will know Alex speaks in a pidgin English, a mixture of Russian, Shakespearean and Biblical English, and Cockney rhyming slang. Needless to say, this nadsat (teen) slang was nigh-incomprehensible at first, and the first ten pages or so were a struggle to read.
However, I have to admit Burgess does an awesome job at being a) consistent, and b) comprehensible. After a few pages I started to get to grips with it all, and soon I actually enjoyed it (being a Linguistics graduate, after all). I even felt particularly proud when I’d recognize a word’s origins. But even if you’re not one for languages, it’s pretty impressive stuff. (Speaking of, I found this rather awesome nadsat reference list, although only after having finished the book.)
I suppose the reason I have mixed feelings about the book are two-fold. Firstly, I didn’t enjoy the storyline at all. It was definitely gripping, in that I read it very quickly, but it wasn’t enjoyable. A few scenes made me feel a little sick, and I’m not one to read stomach-churning books.
The second reason is I wasn’t convinced by the ending. I read the English version, which as far as I’ve understood has an extra chapter that was deleted from the American version (upon which the Stanley Kubrick film is based). The added chapter ends on a more positive note, showing Alex’s growth as a character. But the change didn’t convince me, and maybe even disappointed me because I’d come to terms with the fact that I preferred evil Alex to the conditioned one. To have Alex grow past the evil almost felt like it was ruining the lesson that had come before. On the other hand, I wonder if the American version would leave readers unsatisfied or frustrated. It’s hard to say, hence my mixed feelings.
In sum, Clockwork is a challenging read — no doubt about that — but it is also thrilling and thought-provoking in terms of plot, theme, and writing style. Definitely one to check out.