A Clockwork Orange (1962)
By: Julian on August 28, 2008  |  Comments ()  |  Share 
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Author: Anthony Burgess
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Pages: 141 pages
William S Burroughs championed it. Stanley Kubrick filmed it, and author Anthony Burgess expressed regret over it. It was revered and reviled in equal measure. A Clockwork Orange is perhaps a defining work in transgressional fiction; Burgess' dystopian prediction of a future Britain rife with crime perpetrated by the increasingly violent younger generation.

A Clockwork Orange is divided into three parts, with seven chapters each (twenty-one in total, Burgess' reference to coming-of-age). In the first, we're introduced to the novel's antihero, Alex. Alex is fifteen years of age, has a particular predilection for Beethoven, and leads a dangerous gang. His three primary companions, or 'droogs', are Dim, Georgie and Pete, and the quartet lurk around the Korova Milk Bar (essentially a drug den), or roam the streets looking to unleash their unique brand of 'ultra-violence'. After one such outing ends badly for the mob, Alex is caught by the police while his companions flee.

Alex is thrown behind bars but soon learns about a new rehabilitation method known as the 'Ludovico technique', where the perpetrator is put into a near-death drug-induced haze while forced to watch violent images that serve as extreme aversion therapy. Dr Brodsky and Dr Branom are the two government psychologists who administrate the Ludovico technique, and they jot notes as their social experiment threatens to shatter Alex.

Interestingly enough, Burgess was more disturbed by the impact of A Clockwork Orange than anything else, and was quoted as saying, '[I thought that the novel would be remembered as] the fountain and origin of a great film'. Even with that underwhelming self-reflection, A Clockwork Orange has proven to be a profoundly influential work language-wise – Burgess was credited with coining the phrase 'ultra-violence' in Alex's gleeful descriptions of his nights out, and he fashioned an entire new language, a hybrid of Cockney rhyming slang and Russian, with Alex and his droogs' 'Nadsat'. It's certainly not a breezy read because of it, and most of the book is written in Nadsat, though it's fairly easily deducible in the most part.

As far as the novel's main thematic elements were concerned, Burgess based much of his plot upon what some perceived to be an almost anarchic younger generation running riot when National Service was no longer made compulsory in November 1960. Burgess himself had a lengthy military career, serving for six years between 1940 and 1946. It was during this service, in 1944, when a trio of American soldiers raped Burgess' wife in their home, an event that the author asserts led her misscarriage and paved the way to her death of cirrhosis of the liver in 1968. This event became pivotal in A Clockwork Orange, where Alex and his droogs stage a daring home invasion.

Burgess' evaluation of the title was that it explored the implications of a Pavlovian society, where its citizens are conditioned or, like clocks, simply 'wound up' for action. He also put forth a variety of other reasons to explain 'A Clockwork Orange' – far less evaluative was that it was derivative of a Cockney expression 'queer as a Clockwork Orange', a Depression-era phrase which means, according to the ever-reliable Wiktionary, 'something bizarre internally, but appearing natural, human, and normal on the surface'. Overall, and despite offering extensive reasoning regarding the novel until his death in 1993, the author remained cynical towards what has widely been recognised as his magnum opus, and remained embittered that it was regarded as being 'definitive Burgess'. Said Burgess of the finished product, 'It was not a very good novel, but it sincerely presented my abhorrence of the view that some people were criminal and others not.' Burgess' desire to make Alex an ambiguous sort – certainly not unsympathetic – is present throughout the novel, but he falls short of allowing the reader to actually empathise with him. There are times you can't help it, though, particularly when Alex implores the reader to see his point of view by referring to us as 'my brothers' as he meekly attempts justification.

A Clockwork Orange had a profound effect upon its initial release. At once considered potently controversial, Burgess' defining work (a claim, irrefutable as it is, that plagued the author) is widely considered a deeply important sociological novel, a moralistic character study recognised by Time magazine as being one of the hundred most important English-language novels since 1923. I can't recommend this one enough.
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