Title: A Clockwork Orange
Author: Anthony Burgess
Publisher: William Heinemann
Publication Date: 1962
Rating: 5 stars
“What’s it going to be then, eh?”
A Clockwork Orange is one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read. I found a copy in a bookstore in Canada, flipped to the back jacket and read the first sentence of the synopsis: “In this nightmare vision of youth in revolt, fifteen-year-old Alex and his friends set out on a diabolical orgy of robbery, rape, torture, and murder.” Aaaaand I was hooked; I bought the book (though I guess it’s more of a novella) immediately. The synopsis is quite vague, so I went into this book with practically no knowledge or background whatsoever. I’ll try to give you guys a little more insight.
Our narrator is Alex, a fifteen-year-old living in a future dystopian-esque society where the violence is brutal and heavily prevalent, especially with the youth. Alex and his “droogs” Dim, Pete, and Georgie lurk the streets at night committing heinous crimes together under Alex’s lead. One night, things don’t go according to plan, and Alex winds up in jail. After serving two years of his fourteen-year sentence, the State decides to implement a new reform program in the area, selecting Alex as the first participant — or is he a victim?
I’ve never read a book quite like A Clockwork Orange, and I’m certain I won’t find another similar to it. Burgess writes using a very peculiar language: a combination of English and Nadsat, which is a mix of modified Slavic words and rhyming slang derived from Russian. Burgess was a linguist and was able to invent these words and incorporate them into his novel to essentially brainwash the reader into comprehending them. Experiencing this for yourself is such a strange sensation. At first, you’re reading words like “viddy,” slooshy,” “droog,” “horrorshow,” and “glazzies,” and you have no idea what these words mean. Some editions include a word key; mine did not, and I am okay with that. I enjoyed deciphering the meaning of these words on my own, and reaching a point in the book where I would instantly understand that Alex was hearing something when I saw the word “slooshy” or seeing something when I saw “viddy.” I read Lewis Carrol’s “The Jabberwocky” in my linguistics class last year where I was introduced to the concept of invented words that still make sense to the reader. A Clockwork Orange is another great example of this. Brainwashing is a huge aspect of Alex’s story, and I love that Burgess himself was able to brainwash his readers, too, by creating his own language that seems foreign at first, but soon becomes as normal as reading plain English.
The book is told in first-person with Alex as our narrator, like I mentioned earlier. It features 3 parts, each with 7 chapters. Burgess mentions the book has a total of 21 chapters as a nod to the milestone age of 21, known as the age of maturation. By the end of the book, though, Alex is only 18 years old. I did some research and discovered that my copy of the book (Penguin’s 2011 edition) included all 21 chapters because it was published after 1986. Apparently, the 21st chapter was omitted from every edition published in the U.S. until 1986. Burgess’s publisher believed this last chapter to be unconvincing and inconsistent with the rest of the novel, so he convinced Burgess to leave it out of the first edition. Burgess considers these shortened versions to be flawed. The 21st chapter is very controversial: without it, the story fails to become a coming-of-age story; with it, it becomes slightly unbelievable and rushed. I will not spoil anything for you guys because I don’t believe in spoilers, but I’m not really sure what I think of the last chapter. I like it because it is intended to be there by the author himself, and it does complete the book and character arc. However, I think it’s very different compared to the rest of the book and almost seems thrown-in. I’m as conflicted as the chapter is controversial. Nonetheless, I think everyone should at least read the final chapter since it is technically a part of the story.
This book isn’t for the faint of heart — there are a lot of ultra-violent acts graphically depicted, which is probably why it’s a banned book. This is another one of those books that I loved even though I didn’t really love the narrator. I have no idea how I really feel about Alex. I wanted to like him, I really did, but then there he is, brutally beating and raping an innocent woman, and at that point it’s a little hard to sympathize with him. Later, the State is reforming him, and I want to sympathize with him because the treatment is morally unjust, but then I’m continually brought back to the fact that he desperately wants and craves to be out on the streets again, committing these horrible crimes that he’s being punished for committing. After reading Chapter 21, I’m trying to like Alex, but it’s still hard. I’m just as conflicted about Alex’s character as I am the last chapter of the book!
I love this book because it gave me so many strange sensations and emotions. I like books that make me think and feel, and then question those thoughts and feelings. Hopefully in the next couple weeks I’ll be watching Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation, though I know he omits Chapter 21 from his film and pretends it does not exist. Nonetheless, I still look forward to it. I hope this post encourages some of you to read this book, because it’s now officially one of my favorites and very much a literary classic in my mind.
Favorite Quote: When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.