How to review an infamous book about which so much has already been said? By avoiding reading others’ thoughts until I’ve written mine.
There are horrors in this book, but there is beauty too, and so much to think about. The ends of the book justify the means of its execution, even if the same is not true of what happens in the story.
BOOK vs FILM
I saw the film first, and read the book shortly afterwards. Usually a bad idea, but in this case, being familiar with the plot and the Nadsat slang made it easier to relax (if that's an appropriate word, given some of the horrors to come) into the book. The film is less hypnotic and far more shocking than the book, because it is more visual and because it ignores the more optimistic final chapter (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clockwork_orange#Omission_of_the_final_chapter).
PLOT AND STRUCTURE
It is a short novel, comprising three sections of seven chapters, told by “your humble narrator”, Alex. In the first section, Alex and his teenage gang indulge in “ultra-violence” (including sexual assault of young girls); in the middle section, Alex is in prison and then undergoes a horrific new treatment (a sort of aversion therapy); the final section follows him back in the real world, rejected by his parents, now the puppet of opposing political factions. The whole thing is set in a slightly dystopian, very near future and explores issues of original sin, punishment and revenge, free will, and the nature of evil.
One awful incident involves breaking in to a writer’s house and gang raping his wife, who later dies. A similar incident happened to Burgess’ first wife (though he wasn’t there at the time). Writing a fictionalised account from the point of view of the perpetrator is extraordinary: charitable, cathartic, or a more complex mixture?
Why is Alex as he is? “What I do I do because I like to do”, and perhaps there is no more that can be said. As Alex ponders, “this biting of their toe-nails over what is the CAUSE of badness is what turns me into a fine laughing malchick. They don’t go into the cause of GOODNESS… badness is of the self… and that self is made by old Bog or God and is his great pride and radosty”.
So, can people like Alex be cured, and if so, how? Imprisonment, police brutality, fire and brimstone don’t work. Enter the Ludovico Technique, whereby Alex is injected with emetics before being strapped, with his eyelids held open, to watch videos of extreme physical and sexual violence. He becomes conditioned to be unable to commit such acts, or even to watch or think about them. This raises more questions than it solves. The prison governor prefers the old “eye for an eye”, but has to give in to the new idea of making bad people good. “The question is whether such a technique can really make a man good. Goodness comes from within… Goodness is something chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.” The chaplain has doubts, too, “Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?” On the other hand, by consenting to the treatment, Alex is, in an indirect way, choosing to be good.
The technique (or torture) is promoted as making Alex “sane” and “healthy” so that he can be “a free man”, but although he is released from prison, he remains imprisoned by the power of the technique, even to the extent that the music he loves now makes him sick (because it was playing in the background) and his inability to defend himself means he becomes a victim.
But do the ends justify the means? Dr Brodsky thinks so: “We are not concerned with motive, with the higher ethics. We are only concerned with cutting down crime.” However, if it wears off, it will all have been for nothing.
The final chapter (omitted from US editions of the book until 1986, and also the film) feels incongruously optimistic in some ways, but by suggesting the true answer as to what will cure delinquency is… maturity, it might be thought the most pessimistic chapter. Is teen violence an inevitable cycle: something people grow into, and then out of when they start to see their place in the bigger picture? And if so, is that acceptable to society?
The possibility of redemption is a common thread, reaching its peak in this final chapter. Burgess was raised as a Catholic, educated in Catholic schools, but lost his faith aged sixteen. He continued to have profound interest in religious ideas, though, as explained here: http://www.anthonyburgess.org/burgess-and-catholicism.
LANGUAGE – AND NADSAT SLANG
A distinctive feature of the book is the Nadsat slang that Alex and his droogs use (“nadsat” is the Russian suffix for “teen” – see http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2012/05/language-of-a-clockwork-orange/). Burgess invented it from Russian with a bit of Cockney rhyming slang and Malay, because real teen slang is so ephemeral, the book would quickly seem dated otherwise. He wanted the book published without a glossary, and it is written so carefully, that the meaning is usually clear, and becomes progressively so, as you become accustomed to it: “a bottle of beer frothing its gulliver off and a horrorshow rookerful of like plum cake” and “There’s only one veshch I require… having my malenky bit of fun with real droogs”. Where an English word is used literally and metaphorically, the Nadsat one is too; for example, “viddy” is used to see with one’s eyes and to understand someone’s point.
The skill of carefully used context makes Russian-based Nadsat much easier to follow than the dialect of Riddley Walker (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/23326332), even though the latter is based on mishearings of English. (To be fair, the whole of Riddley Walker is written in dialect, whereas in Clockwork Orange, it's conventional English with a generous smattering of slang.)
Where the meaning isn't immediately obvious or is merely vague, you go with the flow until it seeps into your consciousness (much as would happen if you were dropped into an environment where you had no language in common with anyone else). It's another way of sucking the reader into Alex's world and his gang.
Nadsat lends a mesmerising and poetic aspect to the text that is in sharp contrast to the revulsion invoked by some of the things Alex does: tolchocking a starry veck doesn’t sound nearly as bad as beating an old man into a pulp - Nadsat acts as a protective veil. In the film, this effect is somewhat diluted because you SEE these acts.
The book was like published in 1962 and Alex frequently uses “like” as an interjection as I did earlier in this sentence – something that has become quite a common feature of youth speak in recent times. What happened in between, I wonder?
Other than that, much of what Alex says has echoes of Shakespeare and the King James Bible: “Come, gloopy bastard thou art. Think thou not on them” and “If fear thou hast in thy heart, o brother, pray banish it forthwith” and “Fear not. He canst taketh care of himself, verily”. There is always the painful contrast of beautiful language describing unpleasant and horrific things.
Similarly, the repetition of a few phrases is almost liturgical. Alex addresses his readers as “oh my brothers”, which is unsettling: if I’m one of his brothers, am I in some way complicit, or at least condoning, what he does? Another recurring phrase is, “What’s it going to be then, eh?” It is the opening phrase of each section and used several times in the first chapter of each section.
Burgess was a composer, as well as a writer, and Alex has a passion for classical music, especially “Ludwig van”. This may be partly a ploy to make the book more ageless than if he loved, for example, Buddy Holly, but more importantly, it’s another way of creating dissonance: a deep appreciation of great art is not “supposed” to coexist with mindless delinquency.
Alex has lots of small speakers around his room, so “I was like netted and meshed in the orchestra”, and the music is his deepest joy: “Oh bliss, bliss and heaven. I lay all nagoy to the ceiling… sloshing the sluice of lovely sounds. Oh it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh.” The treatment destroys this pleasure- with dramatic results.
Ultimately, I think Alex is sympathetic villain: he has a seductive exuberance and charm and although he does horrific things, when awful things are done to him, sympathy flows.
Yes, there are horrors in this book, but there is beauty too, and so much to think about. The ends of the book justify the means of its execution, even if the same is not true of what happens in the story. Brilliant.