Monday, 9 January 2012

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

For those unaware of it, this a dystopian novel (in my mind similar to 1984) about a boy Alex (!) who, like many his age, is extremely violent and speaks with rather unintelligible slang. He's an anti-hero in many ways, but he isn't, actually, completely evil. In many ways, this book is also a very different kind of coming of age novel.

First off, I think it's important to get my warnings out of the way. Alex is a violent person, which can be gruesome, but most of us can move past that; but there is also sexual crime, perpetrated by him, in the book. There isn't a great detail, but it's something obvious in the story and he has a very objectifying perception of women.

There is also the "NadSat" talk. It's the slang that the teenagers use and has mainly Russian derivations, while others are just nods towards certain ideas or people. Starting the book, I really struggled with this. I got a dictionary up online to help understand what was happening since he'd speak normally for many a page, but then start using NadSat for almost every other word. It was taking me out of the story so I had to do something. Apparently the author didn't like the NadSat Dictionary idea since he wanted people to actually go away and look up the Russian stems, so that everyone might have a slightly different interpretation, but though I tried, it was too difficult.

As I often find with classics, the story didn't jump out at me so much as the ideas behind it; it was merely the podium on which the ideas had to stand in order to be seen. It isn't bad, though. There's three parts; '1' is life before jail, '2' is life in jail and during "treatment" while '3' is after jail and when he rejoins society. Basically, we get to know Alex and see him commit crimes, then we see his droogies (friends) turn on him so he goes to jail. here, he gets involved in Ludovico treatment- a treatment which breeds an aversion to an act by subjecting someone to unbearable sensations when seeing or thinking of the act. An association-aversion treatment. I'll leave the ending in case you decide to read, but you can sort of guess where it is heading (but I promise you couldn't guess it in it's entirety). Also, each part has 7 sections- appealing to my OCD. The idea was that 21 (culturally an age of maturity) is when Alex finally starts changing since I wouldn't call it maturity.

The main idea that leaps from this novel is the argument of whether it is better to do good things, but only because you have been conditioned for it, or to do as you wouldst, even if you do bad. Alex is turned into an acceptable citizen who will never be violent, never misuse someone, never commit a crime. He is the perfect denizen in the eyes of the Government since he costs no money, and goes about doing his own job. The Prison Chaplain is the main character we have against this. He says it is wrong to take away free will and that if one does bad things then it is acceptable only in the light that it is chosen. Everyone, I think, believes Free Will is paramount, but equally believes that it is wrong to cause or allow evil to fester. It's a hard question because it pits two ideas against one another, and in many ways comes down to the self versus the community. Ultimately though, I couldn't defend taking away Free Will. The right to choice is so fundamentally human and I can't bear elements of subjugation or oppression. Cured Alex is no longer a human because there is more powerful force controlling his ability to function. I think the novel veers you in that direction overall, so I am biased, but I don't think that undermines the argument at all.

There's other ideas present, but to a lesser extent. For example, there's the notion that merely having good taste does not make one good. Ask yourself what kind of music a criminal listens too. Contemporary mainstream, I imagine? Alex, he likes Classical Music. He describes it really beautifully until he starts imaging violent images and his adoration for it humanises him and is one of those things that makes you like him since, subliminally, I think we think someone who likes classical music can't be all bad. In fact, this idea is murmuring throughout the entire novel. Burgess is poetic in his writing, and reading him is no effort at all even if you don't exactly understand. He's written really beautifully, despite the subject matter. There's probably a notion of making bad things look good to fool the majority that you could argue, but that's one level of inference too far for me to be going.

I have some minor issues with the book. There's a noticeable lack of female characters in the book; when they are there they are merely plot devices, it seems. I didn't take this as sexist though, I think Burgess was just trying to draw the parallels to Alex and the Government. Though it doesn't say it, I get the feeling it is a very strong patriarchy- that Alex just isn't as discreet as his superiors. The only hint at this is when they are demonstrating the treatment to the officials and the beautiful woman walks off stage and Alex sees the hunger in the men's eyes.

NadSat is the other issue because, though I expected it, I didn't expect it quite so much so it took a small while to get used to.

Some good things I didn't mention too include how I found the book rather funny. One in particular was at the end of part two and the Chaplain says "God help the lot of us" after the treatment is found successful. He sees what no one else does: that the Government doesn't care who they use it on. He seems to have finally given up since no one can see this obvious fact; it just made me smile. I love Cassandra (Greek) characters. The characterisations are also marvellous considering the little time we see some of them, though perhaps a bit black and white.

This was a really enjoyable book. If you don't read classics (modern or otherwise) then I really recommend trying this one if your interested in trying to read more. It's a typical dystopian, and would probably appeal to fans of 1984, though they may see too many parallels with the two. Once again, a fantastic and pleasantly short read.


  1. AHHHH! I read this book last December and...yeah. Soooo excellent. I read this then look at all the dumb pretty-girl-meets-boy YA dystopian novels out there. It's not even a competition, to be honest. I love, love, love this book. With a burning passion.

    Out of curiosity, did you ever watch the film? It's really dark and creepy, but fairly decent (from what I've seen—didn't manage to finish).

    Renae @ Respiring Thoughts

  2. It's really amazing! I'm not going to say a favourite since I think I only scratched the surface in understanding some of what happened and what was said, but I can say that I've read, and really enjoyed, this book.

    I never did watch the film, though I might. I'm put off by what seems to be a disagreement and dislike between the author and the director. I liked the book, and don't want to ruin it. Why didn't you finish it? Too dark? Or just had to be somewhere else?

  3. @ Alex: Uh, I didn't finish it because I didn't feel comfortable watching Alex and his buddies rape people and suchlike. And the video didn't fit my idea of what their world looked like. I'm the sort of person who has a set image in mind while reading a book, and I don't like to ruin that with a movie, even if it's a good one.

    If you aren't bothered by graphic content, you should definitely give it a try, though.

  4. I see, I see. That does sound quite horrible to watch- I have a huge problem with blood. I guess if the world didn't look right either, it would suggest- to me- that you and the makers aren't exactly on the same wavelength and maybe other things wouldn't be how you'd like them to be. Sometimes, I have a very particular image in my head of everything, other times I don't. With this book, I could see some things but the world itself was a bit hazy in general. Maybe I'll be okay with it.

    I know someone who won't actually read a book and see the movie: she'll d one or the other. I think it's a good idea since it gives you one image of a story and you never spend too much time second guessing yourself or others. But then, I like having different interpretations.

    I think I'll try to watch it but, in all honesty, I think I might give it a miss. It sounds like it may be too graphic for me.