A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess’ infamous novella, is a book that everyone has heard of but few have read. It is preceded by a reputation for featuring lengthy depictions of extreme human violence (“ultra-violence” in the novella) with vivid, enthusiastic imagery.
A Clockwork Orange's notoriety grew with Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film adaptation which is far more shocking, and often wrongly understood as glorifying sex and violence. Instead, the film is a sardonic look at crime and punishment that never forgets the themes explored in the book that inspired it. Strangely, the version of the book the director used was incomplete. It lacked the 21st chapter (as it was omitted from the editions published in the U.S. until 1986) and that final chapter is crucial to understanding the original intent of the author.
Despite all the flattering adjectives associated with the film, the novella is far more hypnotic. It is set in a dystopian, not-so-distant London where the narrator, 15-year-old Alex, and his gang of hooligans run amok. A disturbing culture of violence, hypersexuality, and slavish concern with the latest fashion has settled amongst the younger generation. Everyone else (such as Alex’s parents) lives in constant fear of the streets. They stay locked in their homes, apathetically watching government-approved television. In the novella, the government is quite strong and self-validating (whereas in the film, the government is in shambles and has no control over the population); they have most of the population under mind-control and the characters that are its representatives have some moral weight over those who don’t follow the norm.
Alex is more than a hoodlum programmed for cruelty wearing a bowler hat and one false eyelash. As the novella progresses, he becomes the image in the title—a clockwork orange, something that seems natural but inwardly is a machine. Having lost his free will, Alex becomes a pawn for two opposing political groups, the authoritative government and the radicals who want to replace it.
In his creation of a narrator who is guilty of murder, sexual assault and theft, Burgess insists (vehemently) that individuals must be allowed their freedom, even if it results in wickedness. For that purpose, Alex is the perfect main character. He is a performer and takes aesthetic pleasure in his brutality, sometimes elevating it to the status of art. He never tries to find explanations for the meaning and origin of evil or try to explain his actions in intellectual terms. To Alex, violence is another expression of the sense of self, one as valid and natural as the state of goodness.
If lewdies are good that's because they like it, and I wouldn't ever interfere with their pleasures, and so of the other shop. (…) More, badness is of the self, the one, the you or me on our oddy knockies, and that self is made by old Bog or God and is his great pride and radosty. (…) the government and the judges and the schools cannot allow the bad because they cannot allow the self. (…) But what I do I do because I like to do.
The book is short (149 pages in the edition I read) and a lot of things happen in a few pages at a frenetic pace. The plot, despite being brutal, is fascinating as we go along with the narrator on his habitual night-time activities. Throughout the book, he ends up interacting with archtypes of characters (generic young girls, prison doctors, writers) and with abstract concepts (figures of governmental authority or Christian decency) rather than with distinct individuals, leaving the feeling that most characters in the book are interchangeable with any other of their archetype.
Another aspect worthy of note, Burgess chose to write A Clockwork Orange in an Anglo-Russian slang, called Nadsat (the same used in Stanley Kubrick’s film). Nadsat gives teen culture in the novella an inimitable voice and, at the same time, reinforces the subculture’s independence from society. It’s a subversive way of speaking that invents new words, reshapes old ones and ends up having an effect on your thoughts and way of life, much like Newspeak in George Orwell’s 1984.
Readers might not respond well to the book initially due to the jargon. However, it becomes comprehensible, mostly through the consistent way Burgess introduces words. Go with the flow and you will become progressively more fluent in the lingo without an absurd amount of effort. By the end, you will not only understand but you will want to speak Nadsat yourself.
As for the 21st chapter that had been omitted in the U.S. editions, it feels simplistic and poorly executed because it dismisses accountability for Alex’s actions. While A Clockwork Orange manages to raise questions about freedom of will, speech and thought, the issue of whether people can change from their past is awkwardly answered.
If you believe you can get past the few pages covered with text such as the quote included above and you can look past the pervading “ultra-violence” always present in the plot, you should give it a try because it is a very good book. A Clockwork Orange is a harsh exploration of the morality of behaviour and free of will and a really horrorshow story.