SF Book Review: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

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4.5/5 Stars

Why did it take me so long to read this book? It should be mandatory reading material for anyone interested in dystopian Spec Fic, or any SF for that matter. What Burgess has done here, in relatively few pages, is so mind-bogglingly brilliant I wish I could exhume his corpse and dance into the sunset with it. The language! My Bog, the language! It’s amazing how a little thing like inventing your own slang can breathe life into a novel in a way that mere imagery, characters, and plot could never achieve.

But Anthony Burgess was an asshole, you say! The movie was so much better, you say! A Clockwork Orange is nothing like the rest of his work, you say! I say, “Shut up.” I’m sure he was an asshole. I don’t care. Here’s a little secret about writers—the good ones are all assholes! If we wrote off every writer who verbally abused his family, packed his nose full of cocaine and/or bled pure gin we’d have precious little left. And they’re never happy with their work. That’s probably why they’re assholes. Embrace it.

(I have no comment on the movie. I’ve tried to watch it a couple of times and always get bored after Alex goes to prison. I’m sure Kubrick is doing some amazingly wonderful cinematic magic in his rendition of the novel, but I didn’t get it. I get books.)

In A Clockwork Orange, Burgess does everything you’re not supposed to do in a novel—he makes up words, his characters are putrid irredeemable shit-bags, he revels in the cruelty and violence of human nature without giving us any respite—and yet this is one of the most readable un-readable novels I’ve ever encountered. Unlike Riddley Walker, which I’ve started and stopped more times than I can count, A Clockwork Orange lets you slip into its world on a wave of milk and blood. By the time you realize you have no idea what the fuck you’re reading, it’s too late. You’re in.

No, there are no likeable characters in this dystopian tale of horror and ultra-violence. Why are you so hung up on that? Why do you have to like someone to be able to learn from them? Alex and his droogs are the bi-product of a violent and controlling world. We are supposed to be horrified by them. That’s the whole point! They are the street-level doppelganger of the very government they think they are rebelling against. That’s what is horrifying about them.

It’s not just the suggestion that young men are capable of violence—robbery, rape and murder—for entertainment. Burgess’ not-so-subtle hint here is that all people are capable of this, that to be good or to be evil is a choice. There are no good people and bad people, there are good acts and evil acts, and any one person is capable of doing either. In our lives we may make a combination of choices, some good and some bad, and none are capable of defining us in that one singular act. This choice is what makes us human, rather than animals (governed by instinct) or robots (programed by their maker). If we take away this choice, human life becomes meaningless. We become nothing but an empty shell. A clockwork orange.

Yet for most, the empty shell is a preferable state to the human who makes anti-social choices. We are the ones being condemned by Burgess’ novel. Those of us who value humanity only when it is subscribing to society’s definition of right and wrong, even when that society is as corrupt and evil at its core as the “evil” people it breeds. The only time in which Alex is truly beyond redemption in A Clockwork Orange is when his programming has disabled his ability to make his own choices. At this point, he has no soul. He is little more than an object, a pawn in the world to be shoved about by others—whether this is to his detriment or to his gain is irrelevant.

When Alex is reconditioned again, when he is given back his ability to choose, we are disappointed that he goes right back to his old ways. What we forget is that it is the choice that makes him human and alive. And in the final chapter we see an inkling that perhaps Alex’s days of bad choices, of violent choices, are coming to an end. He beings to see other choices, other paths he might take. Had he remained in his conditioned state Alex would never have been able to evolve. He would have remained a toothless monster—a zombie—until the day he died, unable to defend himself from the world.

Anthony Burgess uses Speculative Fiction exactly the way it is meant to be used. This little novella explores more deeply into the idea of humanity than many philosophical and spiritual texts I’ve read. And it is able to do so because it’s not afraid to embrace the inner asshole lurking in every one of us. No, it’s not a complicated thesis. But it is one that is too often overlooked and glossed over. Our world is built upon the idea that we can categorize and classify everything in it from pond scum to architectural designs to personality types. Burgess suggests that things might not be as simple as we wish them to be.

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