A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess | Review
Publication: New York : HarperAudio, 2007
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 7 hours 45 minutes
After finding myself nestled within several book groups these last six months, I’ve decided I need a better vocabulary to explain more distinctly why I fancy some books more than others. What do I mean when I proclaim loudly that this or that book was “awful” or that it was “one of the best things I’ve ever read in my life,” and what am I using to measure such distaste or praise? In an attempt to give a more specific voice to my all-too tumultuous rating of books, I started thinking about the four primary elements that make up any piece of literature, or that at least bubble to the surface for me. Now I understand fully these so-called qualifiers might shift, fading or waxing in importance depending on the reader, but here’s what has risen to the surface in my own readerish mind.
I’d like to very briefly lay out each qualifier and then show how they perhaps mix and match to allow a piece of literature (and I’ll use Burgess’s novel as the primary example here) to rise or fall within the totality of these probably very crude measuring sticks.
First, there’s the plot. Does it grab the reader? Does it demand a continued turning of the pages? Are you, the reader, fully invested in finding out what happens next? If a work of literature meets this qualifier, but only this qualifier, then I give it a hard-D rating (harsh, I know, but stick with me).
Second, we have character development. Is the reader convinced these are real people? Do their reactions make sense according to our real-life expectations and everyday interactions? Does their dialogue sound true to life? Having this qualifier in addition to the plot element moves the piece of prose, in my mind, into the C-range.
Next, there’s the eloquence of the prose being used. Do the words, not to mention their organization, inspire ecstasy, a sense of flying on the wings of other-worldliness? I’d like to argue that this takes a specific mixture of literary competency and poetic bravery. Are the words being used beautifully and artfully composed while retaining comprehensibility? If “yes,” this type of accomplishment, then, elevates the piece to the B-category.
And finally, there’s the lasting philosophical aspect. Is it timeless in its criticism of societal norms? Does it look simultaneously backwards and forwards in its portrayals of where we as a species have been and what we might be hurtling toward? Did you, the reader, learn something you can take with you through life? Was the reading of this piece of prose a “life-changing” experience in some way or other? And with this element stacked on top of those aforementioned, now we’ve really got a grade-A, fully-fledged, 100-percent gorgeous piece of literature.
Okay. Let’s take a breath after all that. This scale is my own very personal basic-to-ethereal plumb line, for sure. But, how do these weighty judgments all mesh? Well, since this is a book review website, and this post is currently focused on Burgess’s “Clockwork of Oranges,” let’s dive right in.
The plot of this book is the standard hero’s journey, complete with a baseline from which our humble narrator flies, falls, and at last ultimately finds a reason to embrace change. I should warn that I’m going to talk about the full version of this book, without its American editorial exclusion of the final chapter, which the author himself argued strips the story of its true intent.
To preface any arguments for or against Clockwork’s much debated last chapter, please know, this very starry reader read this book for a British literature class (so the last chapter was included on that read-through) while I was still trapped within the Christian bubble of a very conservative Christian university/universe. I remember clearly the moment of truth, when I had to decide whether to discard or continue with all that real horrorshow viddying of the true nature of the world. Well, my melanky droogs (not to be too familiar like), I’m so glad I gritted my teeth very hard and continued on. Even in the height of all those religious convictions, I was not satisfied (so sorry to you, Mr. Burgess) with that last little chapter and all its rejection of the wiles of youth, traded neatly in for the domesticities of grown-up-like perspectives of responsibility and procreation.
To tie this back into commenting on the plot element of this book specifically, yes, perhaps the story becomes more of a cautionary fable than a full-circle hero’s journey when the 21st chapter is removed. However, I personally didn’t feel any loss at ending the story with Alex’s 20th-chapter-day-dream smashing unabashedly the government’s forced reformation project. Perhaps stemming from my bursting-at-the-seams annoyance at the stifling atmosphere of my religious upbringing, I perceived Alex’s ecstasy in the closing scene of Burgess’s 20th chapter’s as a throwing off of all that hinders true free will.
On the other hand, the 21st chapter (leaning more toward the author’s intent here) certainly didn’t ruin the book for me by any means, as it is what, arguably, gives the book’s title its full gut-punch perhaps. In his 1986 introduction called “A Clockwork Orange Resucked,” Burgess discusses the importance of free moral choice as the ultimate way the human spirit can avoid being reduced to a mechanical clockwork. For the freedom of choice, Burgess seems to be arguing, is what allows a person to become “an organism lovely with colour and juice.” Certainly, the primary elements of the plot, all wrapped up in Alex’s journey, are so engrossing that to not read the last chapter would have felt like a betrayal of the humble narrator’s final decisions within the very narrative in and of itself.
This leads to the second qualifier noted above, that of character development. I’d like to argue that Burgess does this so exquisitely well that he actually tricks the reader into rooting for little Alex to, at the very least, be okay at the end of the novel, notwithstanding probably every readers’ simultaneous hope that Alex will develop some sense of remorse for all the raping and pillaging he accomplishes throughout the first half of the book. Burgess somehow makes us care about his anti-protagonist (yes, there’s another word for that, which I’d like to argue doesn’t quite fit in this book’s narrative), and perhaps that level of caring manifests differently for different readers, absolutely. But through it all, Burgess never gives the reader cause to doubt the reality of Alex’s existence, even if only in a fabled-like mirroring of the worst of human nature. We all know Alex-type characters, and we all love to hate them if we’re being completely honest.
Yet this genius of character development within A Clockwork Orange goes beyond the story’s narrator, as Burgess’s descriptions of the old ladies at the milk-bar and the lonely writer in his warm “Home,” not to mention the bookworm gentleman at the library, are all very recognizable characters in their own rights. And it is perhaps the repeated meeting of these sidelined characters that lulls the reader into convinced acceptance. Sure, they’re all caricatures of the people we meet, and sometimes avoid at all costs for safety’s sake. But it is the recognition of their outlines that convinces our acceptance. There’s no awkwardness of indecipherableness.
Alright, then, let’s move right along to what might be deemed the most exciting aspect of A Clockwork Orange, that being of course the author’s use of language. Great big sloppy shoutout to Tom Hollander for his voiced rendition of the book on this point, as his reading of all that Nadsat lingo left no need for any peeking at a glossary of the adapted Russian slang that Burgess so artfully incorporated into the text. Was it beautiful? One hundred percent. Was it comprehensible? Absolutely, but only if the reader allows the fury of the plot to carry him, her, or them past any hesitation that might otherwise masquerade in the guise of confusion. We know precisely what Alex means in the connotations of his narrative if not particularly in the exact translation of each specific word used to describe every scene.
So, for myself, this book checks the third qualification’s box. Not only is the language beautiful, but it is also crazily creative. And the latter without the former can’t stand up to the scrutiny of comprehensibility, so Burgess really has something here, especially as he accomplishes both with the seeming ease of breathing (the prose presents itself that naturally to the reader). Now, I know, I know! I’m probably more tolerant than some in my reading of prose writing that is categorically less accessible, so I understand I should be careful in adding this perhaps odd prejudice into my qualifiers of praise for “great” literature. To that end, I’ll readily admit that I sway more toward prose that demands attention and perhaps a little more work than the traditional straight-up and straight-forward writing. But this leads me to the last measurement I’ve mentioned above.
Does the piece of literature transcend into the philosophically metaphysical? “What’s philosophy got to bloody-well do with language?” You might be asking. As far as I’ve ever been able to tell, language has never (so many absolutes, I know) been fully able to describe beyond the physical world, except when words are used to convey instead of to absolutely describe. Using literature to give its readers a sense of the world, in all its indescribability, is the real trick of transcendence for an author. By using literary tricks of conveyance, instead of just providing what are all to often over-simplified, outright descriptions of the known world, a writer can invite readers into the realm of philosophical ideas. So Burgess has the music of his book’s language working for him in this way, as mentioned above.
Yet, I’m also looking for timelessness (as opposed to an exclusive exploration of the metaphysical) when I think of the philosophical element in a piece of writing. A Clockwork captures simultaneously the evils of an on-the-verge fascist government, the unbridled violence of youth, the desperate grasping for normalcy (whatever that means), and a place to be safe amongst all of these. To say these themes have not repeated themselves through history is to have glued on the blinders of complacency, I’d like to argue. So for me, this book meets my humble standard of being philosophically relevant through time.
And there you have it! A hands-down amazing book is that terrifically terrifying A Clockwork Orange. To give credit where it’s due, Burgess explains in the 2007 audiobook edition’s introduction (read by the author no less) that of all his endeavors in the world of literature this is the one he really didn’t want his name ultimately associated with. Sobering to think about, for all aspiring writers really. But, oh, but what’re ya gonna do?