Novel * Anthony Burgess * Oh No It’s Droogs! * 1962
I’m pretty sure A Clockwork Orange is the only book I’ve tried to read five times. I was successful in the last two attempts, so clearly the novel grew on me. The first time I read three pages and set it down, like thanks but no thanks. The second time I may have got through the first chapter before setting it down once again, but this time fuck you guy I hate your fake words. The third time I opened it up and went oh yeah I hate this, and put it away. Many years passed and somewhere I must have grown a modicum of patience, so I thought I should give that Clockwork Orange another go. And I did, and it felt pretty good to check that one off the list. It wasn’t a revelation or anything, and I’m pretty sure I was more excited to just to knock one of those books out. You know the albatross books, right? The ones you know you should like, or at least should read? Well, I have lots. Since that fourth time, I started up this here blog which deals with dystopian scenarios, so here we go for round five.
This book is strangely beloved, which I’ve never fully understood. I’ve read it all the way through twice, and all I can really say about it is that Burgess does some interesting/annoying things with language and that I can’t tell if I’m supposed to take it seriously or not. Generally dystopias are an exaggerated extension of contemporary society, and they’re almost always self-evidently blunt. 1984 is pretty clear on its views of totalitarianism. A Clockwork Orange is responding to the hysteria over teenage delinquency, I guess? I understand why people would point to 1984 and say something like: “this book is important to me because it made me question how society works.” Same with Brave New World. Neither of those books offer much in the way of hope, or even sympathetic characters. Yet they’re obvious enough that I understand why people latch onto them. In this instance, I’m at a loss. This novel just feels empty in comparison.
Maybe the novel has put me off because I’ve never seen the even-more-famous Stanley Kubrick film. I mean, I’ve seen the iconic bits and pieces, but I’ve never sat down and watched the thing straight through. Don’t look at me like that, I barely watch movies, I’m trying to correct it. I suspect the novel translates to film pretty well, and it’s easier to put the language into context if you can see what’s happening without having to filter out a bunch of nonsense. Some things are pretty clear, regardless of the medium. Alex, the first-person protagonist, is a violent sociopath. He’s a monster with no conscience the entire time, and he’s impossible to sympathize with unless you too are a violent sociopath. It’s hard to hang your entire narrative on such a repulsive person! Now, this choice does open up a few thoughtful questions later on, but right up front the novel seems exploitative and voyeuristic. That’s not always a bad thing, but there are some egregious scenes here and you know, I think I know the score. I get it.
If you’re not familiar with this work, the narrative is actually pretty simple. It takes place in an indeterminate time in England’s future. Horrible teen gangs roam the streets like The Warriors and smash up property and rob folks. The aforementioned Alex is the self-proclaimed leader of his own gang, and the first part of the novel is an account of him being a psycho. He robs and rapes and is otherwise awful, but then whoopsies, he goes too far and someone dies. Then he goes to jail. Once he’s in jail, he’s mostly fine but ends up in trouble once again and is then subjected to a radical new treatment which the government claims to cure the desire to do violence. It’s a pretty slim novel, and most of the time is spent grappling with learning the vocabulary required to make sense of the narrative. Once you do, it moves pretty quickly. Is it worth reading? I don’t know, probably. Let’s look at a few things Burgess is doing.
The first and most obvious thing to look at is Burgess’ choice in language. It’s immediately apparent as soon as you open the book that you’re in for some shit. Look at this:
“There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sit in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. The Korova Milkbar was a milk-plus mesto, as you may, O my brothers, have forgotton what these mestos were like, things changing so skorry these days and everybody quick to forget, newspapers not being read much neither. Well, what they sold there was milk plus something else. They had no licensce for selling liquor, but there was no law yet against prodding some of the new veshches which they used to put into the old moloko, so you could peet it with vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom or one or two other veshches which would give you a nice quiet horrorshow fifteen minutes admiring Bog And All His Holy Angles And Saints in your left shoe with lights bursting all over your mozg. Or you could peet milk with knives in it, as we used to say, and this would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of dirty twenty-to-one, and that was what we were peeting this evening I’m starting off the story with.”
Boy, Word hates every single thing about that paragraph. The first few times I tried to read this, I did too. I don’t know, at first blush it just seems like so much try-hard postmodern bullshit that I actively disliked Burgess for doing this. I’m still not totally on board, although age has mellowed me so that I can at least try and look at this objectively. It’s a clever mish-mash of Cockney rhyming slang, which is fucking bizarre in its own right, made-up British nonsense words, and oddly Slavic constructions. Since we’re dealing with an indeterminate future, the implications of the language are many. Perhaps Western Europe has been heavily influenced by a more aggressive Soviet Union in this future. Kids like Communism, right? That’s the other key ingredient, which is to say youth. Part of what was making teenage culture scary to olds was the rapidity in which they changed language. If you can’t comprehend what they’re saying, you could have no real idea of what they’re doing. Until it’s too late, of course.
A Clockwork Orange’s world is clearly a dire hellscape, but it’s important to remember that we have a very limited viewpoint on its structure. Alex, pretty much the worst person we see in the entire novel, is our only window into this society. He might be a little biased. His entire life is based in violence – ultraviolence, even – and pretty much all we see him do is beat people up and/or sexually assault them. The only things that trouble this depiction of him as a teenage psychopath is his fondness for classical music and his occasional lapse into thee and thou because he likes to sound classy. Classical music is civilized, you see, and rape and murder are not. OR ARE THEY? Oh, I’m onto you now, Burgess. Perhaps civilization itself is to blame for Alex’s behavior. Perhaps the same forces that foster creativity and genius also breed violence? Ugh, no, that’s not it. That’s not it at all.
Once Alex is locked up, he’s eventually exposed to the Ludovico Technique, which is a kind of mental conditioning which cures him of violent action. Essentially, the State pumps Alex full of drugs and then make him watch a bunch of snuff films so that he associates violent thoughts with violent illness. After two weeks of this Alex is subjected to a public demonstration of his docility. Some dude slaps him around and while Alex’s first impulse is to pull a knife and cut him, he eventually debases himself in order to not feel sick. He’s cured! Yet there are ethical concerns about this technique, which should be self-evident. From here on out A Clockwork Orange gets borderline didactic, but in the end doesn’t really offer the reader much in the way of answers. Alex is now a shell of his former horrible self, which is a good thing right? He literally can’t murder and rape anyone now. Yet he has also been stripped of his freedom of choice, which is what eventually leads to Alex’s de-conditioning. In the end, social pressure forces the State to reverse course and basically restore Alex’s capacity for violence.
By the end, it seems as if A Clockwork Orange is still grappling with the ethical questions of technology, not unlike Brave New World. Clearly, the world isn’t so far gone in Burgess’ novel as it was in Huxley’s vision. The State would never capitulate or admit wrongdoing in any proper dystopia. The idea was to employ a technological solution to a social problem, and while it worked brilliantly it still reduced the perpetrator’s humanity. The point being, even people who act in an anti-social manner are part of society and thus are afforded basic human rights. The restoration of Alex sits uneasily, because we know for a fact that he’s going to go traumatize more of his fellow humans, probably with redoubled effort. And all Burgess gives us is the possibility that he’ll go back to prison to maybe get shanked by a cellmate. Not exactly the most comforting conclusion to draw, but here we are.