A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

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A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A violent book written largely in an invented slang makes for a difficult read, but give it time… it rewards the thought. Rightly a “Penguin Essential” almost fifty years after its first publication.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 144 Date: April 2011
Publisher: Penguin Essentials
ISBN: 978-0241951446

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A Clockwork Orange comes under the heading of "books you feel you ought to have read by now". Mostly these are books that you don't necessarily want to read, but are considered such classics that an inability to pass any kind of comment upon them suggests a gaping hole in your education.

Like most people I had heard of "Clockwork Orange" primarily via Kubrick's 1971 film, but I hadn't even seen that. I had only the vaguest idea of what was going on.

Were he still with us Burgess might be disheartened or, maybe, ironically pleased that having read the book, my idea is still somewhat vague.

The basic plot is that at fifteen Alex is a nasty piece of work, with an evil bunch of friends. Sorry, but the word delinquent just doesn't cover it. These guys torture and kill just for the kicks, and then go home to their families, who are genuinely frightened of them, sleep, get up and go to school. Eventually, obviously, something is bound to go wrong and our anti-hero finds himself in prison. Prison life comes as something as shock to the youngster – there are people even worse than he is – plus he finds he misses the outside (who'd a thought?) – so when he's offered a solution, a "cure", that will see him released within the fortnight rather than in fourteen years time, he jumps at it. That's when it all goes wrong.

So far, no spoilers. All of this is on the blurb. Which is a shame; because the Ludovico experiment (the cure) doesn't crop until about three quarters of the way through the book. Sometimes publishers do tell too much. Forget the age of the book, forget the films and the internet, some of us still come to books not knowing the premise! When will they learn?

In some sense, you could argue that knowing the plot in advance doesn't really matter, because nearly fifty years on, it's almost the least interesting point about it. The Ludovico technique might have been something strange and new back in 1962, but the basic principle is now common therapy for all sorts of unwanted activity. Perhaps without such extreme results it must be said.

Right there is a point for discussion. When does therapy become mind-control? Where are the boundaries?

Then there is the society which Burgess has imagined. The sudden arrival of this new being "the teenager" in the late fifties / early sixties created all kinds of horrific projections of delinquent young rebels taking over the world, scorning "society" and holding ordinary folk a communal hostage. Dystopia. When the mods and rockers fought it out on Brighton sea front (or wherever) it was clearly the way the world was going. Yet we seem to have survived.

There are pockets of violence and control, both geographically (there are some districts in some cities where you really don't want to be alone on a dark night, or maybe even a bright afternoon in the wrong clothes) and chronologically (otherwise peaceful neighbourhoods suddenly erupt in riots and destruction, but then settle down again to a normal life). The closed-in nature of Burgess's novella is that it is never clear whether the society he depicts is global, national, or just a few unfortunate estates in one or two Boroughs.

That there are gangs of Alex's disposition wandering our streets today, I have no doubt. But not every street. And, frankly, I think there probably always were, always will be. Somewhere. For a while. Some will get caught. Some will pay a bigger price. Some will grow out of it.

That last is a point that also isn't lost on the author.

If the violence alone doesn't make Clockwork Orange a difficult enough read – and Burgess doesn't pull his punches, so it isn't for the squeamish – then the language does. Children have always made up languages by adding in syllables or simply talking gibberish to which they assign meaning within their clique. With the growth of teen culture this tendency took on a new dimension. Teen slang was already growing out of the music culture and the beat generation by the time the book was written, but the linguist Burgess takes the idea to its extreme. He creates something approaching a whole new language.

He calls it "nadsat" – which is almost a direct Russian parallel to the English "-teen" suffix. Many of the words used are borrowed from Russian, others are from cockney rhyming slang (or derived from that premise), there's the occasional German and some clear inventions of the author. It takes a long while to settle into reading this. The natural reaction is to struggle over what the words mean. Eventually though, like a child learning a new language, as a reader you stop worrying about it. You either know exactly what the word means and so translate it instantly, you have a rough idea which you assume is more or less right, or you haven't a clue so you skim over it in the hope that it isn't important. With each repetition of the word, your understanding of it becomes clearer.

The theory is that Burgess did this because he wanted to give his narrator a very distinctive voice, and one that would not become dated as genuine slang tends to do. I cannot help wondering however whether there wasn't a wider experiment at work, to see if people would respond as I've indicated above, and read it anyway, and not necessarily learn the slang to speak it, but sufficiently to understand it by the end of the book. I'm intrigued as to whether he sought feedback from his readers.

In this area, I think that his prescience is stronger than in others. Consider the growth of text-speak and gangsta-rap. Jargon generally is on the increase. It is possible to overhear a conversation in your native tongue these days and not follow a sentence of it. In one specific he comes close to the mark. "My brothers" Alex addresses his gang and us, his readers. Uncomfortably close "Bro!" you might think.

When it comes to characterisation, Alex is the only person we get a truly complete vision of. Everyone else simply fulfils a role. Then again, it's Alex talking, and that is probably how he sees them too. As for Alex, he is thoroughly detestable. Manipulative. Just plain nasty. If you read closely, there is no point at which he shows any glimmer of what some might call "humanity".

Burgess wrote the book in three parts, each of seven "chapters". He is on record as saying that the number 21 was symbolic – being, at the time, the age of maturity. Yet when the book was published in America the final chapter was omitted. The U.S. publishers (and indeed Kubrick when he finally saw it) felt that it did not ring true with the rest of the book. I can only suggest that they should have read both that last chapter and the rest of the book more closely. Redemption? Not the way I read it.

So: should you read it? On balance I think "yes" – but I have to temper that by saying, "but not necessarily for fun!"

I did not enjoy the book in the slightest. I found it hard work and intensely distasteful. But the more I think about it, the more I realise that it is a clever piece of literature that deserves to be read and thought about and discussed. I almost wish it was one of those we were given to dissect at school. It is full of strong ideas and subtle ones.

And it is only 140 pages long. You can keep the concentration up for that span.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: for another classic look at a dystopian future try Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (aka Blade Runner).

Buy A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess at Amazon.com.


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