A Clockwork Orange

by Anthony Burgess

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

I was speaking to an audience in England some years ago, when
I was asked: “Why are American sports so violent?” To which I
mounted a lukewarm defense of the NFL: “Hey, at least our
violence is on the field, not in the stands”—a perhaps
uncharitable reference to the tradition of soccer hooliganism,
which the British have virtually elevated to a lifestyle category.

But I might equally have pointed to serious British fiction. And
I’m not talking about trashy supermarket novels, rather
highbrow classics. Is there a more disturbingly violent novel
than Iain Banks's
The Wasp Factory, which The Independent
picked as one of the top 100 books of the 20th century? Well,
J.G. Ballard’s
Crash might qualify, which not only fixates on
gore and mutilation, but even aims to poeticize it. It made
The
Telegraph
’s list of “100 Books Everyone
Should Read.” (My addendum . . . but
don’t drive a car for the next week.) And
when British authors try their hand at a
touching coming-of-age story, it comes
out like
Lord of the Flies or Never Let Me
Go
.

But then we arrive at the most famous of
them all, Anthony Burgess’s
A Clockwork
Orange
, which took the brutal exploits of
nasty punks and transformed them into
the main theme for a literary symphony.
As late as 1973, a bookdealer in Utah was arrested for selling a
copy of this novel. Of course, Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation
had created controversies of its own by then. It was
condemned by the Catholic bishops in the US, and the movie
was withdrawn from the UK
cinemas soon after release
because of allegations that it
was spurring copycat crime.
For more than a quarter of a
century this movie was almost
impossible to see in Burgess’s
native country.

Even so, far more people have
viewed the film than have read
Burgess’s potent novel. If you
know Kubrick’s version you
may be sad (but more likely
relieved) to learn that the song
“Singin’ in the Rain” does not
figure in the book. But there is
certainly no shortage of music—
and associated violence—to fill the gaps. A more striking
difference between film and book is Burgess’s final chapter,
omitted from the original American edition and ignored by
Kubrick, which tries to redeem his protagonist Alex and send
him off to a conventional wife-and-kids-at-home life.

At the start of the novel, Alex is the fifteen-year-old leader of a
band of punks who spend their evenings committing random
acts of violence in a dystopian setting where crime is rampant
and most folks stay indoors at night. Not that Alex and his
cronies are above breaking and entering, and beating people to
death in their homes.
A Clockwork Orange follows Alex’s
criminal career, his subsequent arrest and rehabilitation in a
high tech brainwashing facility, and finally his attempt to
return to society. In the longer book version, Alex decides on
his own to embrace the straight and narrow, while the
shortened edition leaves the matter ambiguous.

This final episode changes the meaning of the book, but can
hardly negate the tone of nihilism in the previous two hundred
pages. Oddly enough, Burgess insisted on the later inclusion of
the final chapter in US editions, yet also claimed that the pat
resolution of the book was its biggest flaw. “The book does also
have a moral lesson,” he wrote, “and it is the weary traditional
one of the fundamental importance of moral choice. It is
because this lesson sticks out like a sore thumb that I tend to
disparage
A Clockwork Orange as a work too didactic to be
artistic.”

Now
that might have surprised the censors, and even many
current readers of the book. Burgess thought his novel was too
obvious in advocating traditional morality? Hmmm, I think we
should let the readers vote on that. Many would see this book
as the quintessential expression of anti-morality or of a
Nietzschean will to power.

Burgess once offered a different angle on the book to an
interviewer. Talking to a journalist in Malta (where Burgess
had moved to avoid 90% marginal tax rates back home), he
commented: “We can eradicate any public evil we wish most
efficiently if we employ dictatorial methods. The secret of
government, as of private morality, is to balance individual
freedom of choice with what is considered to be a necessary
apparatus of repression. Lead us not into temptation. But it’s
only to God that we pray so; it’s not up to the State to keep
away the occasions of sin.”

So one can read
A Clockwork Orange as a look into the
morality of an individual, or as an inquiry into the morality of
the State. The latter perspective is easy to overlook in all the
throttling, kicking and slashing in these pages, but is there
nonetheless. Indeed, the dark sci-fi trappings of the novel
make
A Clockwork Orange a worthy follower in the British
tradition of Orwell and
Huxley, who believed that genre fiction
could support the weight of sociopolitical discourse.

Yet put aside the “meaning” of
A Clockwork Orange for a bit,
and just enjoy it for the prose. Burgess is one of the great heirs
of James Joyce, and creates a new language to convey his
story. You will realize from the opening page that this will not
be your conventional narrative: “There was me, that is Alex,
and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie and Dim, Dim being
real dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our
rassodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter
bastard though dry.”

I have elsewhere suggested that conceptual fiction, which plays
fast and loose with our conceptions of reality, serves as an
alternative to fiction that experiments with words. Yet here
Burgess delivers both, and in full measure. This author may
have had reservations that he had written a novel that was all
too ‘weary’ and ‘traditional’. But I doubt that will be your
impression on reading this extraordinary, unsettling book.


Ted Gioia writes on music, literature, and popular culture.
His newest book is
The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the
Repertoire.
conceptual fiction
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