Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Review of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

The transition from child- to adulthood is perhaps one of the most trying times of life.  Questing for social acceptance, over confidence, lack of compassion, angst that needs outlet, and being rebellious for rebelliousness’ sake are all parts of growing up for most young people.  There are times, however, that the behavior goes to the extreme.  Anthony Burgess’ wife victim to an act of random violence by a group of young men, in 1962 he decided to write a novel from the perspective of one such delinquent, A Clockwork Orange the result.   A delicious yet appalling stew of wildly creative language and violent behavior, Burgess digs deeper into the head of a sociopathic young man than is perhaps good for a sane man, but if the ending can be trusted, comes to a measure of peace for what transpired with his wife.

A Clockwork Orange is the story of Alex, the teenage leader of a gang of hooligan delinquents.  Terrors of the streets, Alex and his droogs—Georgie, Pete, and Dim—spend their nights arbitrarily stealing, beating, raping—preying upon society.  Taking pleasure in the anguish, the flow of blood and screams of pain set lights in their eyes and smiles on their faces.  And Alex’s parents are helpless to intervene; he skips school, tricks girls to bed with drugs, and lives a life entirely void of empathy.  Biting off more than he can chew one night out, Alex’s life takes a flip-flop after a flight of bravado.  But will the situation he suddenly finds himself in make any difference?

The prose utterly brilliant, reading A Clockwork Orange is guilty pleasure.  The story dynamite in the telling, it remains oh-so disturbing in content—a real horror show.  Alex and his mates speaking in a Russian-esque slang delivered in Cockney style, the kreeching, slooshy, and viddying, tolchocks, rot, and cutter are heaven for those who enjoy the English language used in abstract, wildly-inventive fashion.  Burgess fully in touch with the underlying audio qualities of English (the audiobook version narrated by Tom Hollander is superlative), the moments of misunderstanding are few and far between, context delivered implicitly.  In fact, had the novel been written in contemporary English, it perhaps would not have the appeal it has, its style the biggest part of its success.  (Compare the novel to Silverberg’s The Second Trip for proof.)

But beyond stylistics, why read the story of a sociopath? What reason is there to stomach the ultra-violence Alex and his droogs lay upon society?  The answer is that beyond the individual acts of violence, worth can be found in what Alex’s life as a whole amounts to.  “But oh my brothers”, Burgess gains sympathy for the young man by writing a first-person narrative that is fully sincere in its delivery.  Alex is as open about the bloodlust as he is about his reaction to the changes which come about during his incarceration, as well as after.  Burgess bouncing Alex through the pinball machine of pleasure and pain, where he finds himself at the end of the novel is not where he began—the British version that is—and an evolution worth thinking upon.

On that note, something needs to be said regarding the conclusion of A Clockwork Orange (without spoilers).  When the book initially appeared on the market (in Britain) in 1962, it possessed 21 chapters.  But when the first American version appeared, it contained only 20, the final chapter elided because Burgess’ American publisher believed it did not fit the overall story arc.  Readers will have to judge for themselves, but no matter what their conclusion, they will agree the final chapter makes a huge difference regarding Burgess’ view of the phenomenon under examination.  Given this difference in endings (and perhaps most particularly that Kubrick’s film used the American version as its source), there are many that consider A Clockwork Orange to be a nihilist view of humanity (nature over nurture).  Looking at the original British version, there are others that believe the novel points a finger at a broken system (i.e. a government which enables delinquent behavior but is inept to prevent it), and still others who believe it is an optimistic piece: that man can indeed alter his behavior should he choose (i.e. free choice).  While all these elements are certainly at play, I would hesitate to single one out as the definitive interpretation. Instead I would point to Alex’s development as a whole as the main focus; the young man’s behavior may be extreme, but when viewed holistically it is representative of the maturation every—or most every—person goes through. 

And the title would seem to support this.  The first word presenting the image of routine, adjusted progression and the second a splash of vivid color—a poetic spanner in the works—A Clockwork Orange seems an apt title for the clash of ideals that occur in the story: Alex’s youth vs. the adult world. That these two words are placed together to form the title would seem to indicate Burgess believes that even after growing up, lust for a bit of the ol’ in-out in-out and ultra-violence exists.  Given the elderly’s desire for vengeance on Alex, the police’s awful beatings, and the institution’s usage of sex and violence itself, there may indeed be some truth in it.   But I’m rambling.  Suffice to say, Burgess has given the reader more than enough material for rumination in title and content. 

In the end, A Clockwork Orange is a disturbing but brilliant read that (depending on the version) lends itself to a variety of interpretations—psychological, sociological, political, and philosophical among them.  But one thing which cannot be denied is the presentation of one of humanity’s dirty sides: the rashness of youth.  Torturing cats not even touched upon, Burgess presents an extreme version of delinquency, the system’s attempts to correct the behavior, and the long-term turn out of it all. Burgess a born writer, the prose is the reason to read the novel, particularly for readers tired of the same old lexicon.

(A side note on the film: Stanley Kubrick’s version of Burgess’ novel is a very faithful adaptation—of the initial American publication, that is.  Kubrick capturing the mood and style, utilizing the unique language, and developing the story as presented in novel, he foregoes the light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel ending in favor of the less-than-ambiguous closing to chapter 20.  Malcolm McDowell portraying the evil and dispassion of Alex wonderfully, readers of A Clockwork Orange will find the film to be of their imagination, and vice versa.  Qualms regarding the ending aside, Kubrick should be commended for capturing the essence of this unsettling yet though-provoking novel.

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