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.

Book Review: Deliverance by James Dickey

I mostly intended to review science fiction and fantasy books on this blog, in keeping with the theme of my own novel. But I’m taking a break from SF for a bit, and I wanted to share my thoughts on this book with you.

I watched the movie, once upon a time, though I thought I knew what it was about and I thought it wouldn’t interest me. I was surprised to be wrong in both cases. And then surprised again when I discovered that Deliverance is a book as well as a movie, written in 1970 by one of America’s best known poets.

Or so they say. I don’t know much about American poets.

But after discovering that, despite its reputation, the movie was more about outdoor survival than cornholin’ hillbillies I decided to give this previously unknown (to me) American classic a try. And Dickey doesn’t disappoint!

I really liked this book, though I hovered between a three and four star rating. What had me leaning toward the three was the dialogue. All of the dialogue felt unnatural and forced, like watching old movies where every line is so thought out and perfect that you can’t imagine a person actually speaking that way. Even the use of colloquialism came off as contrived and stilted, and I had trouble picturing the characters as having a conversation. It was like they were speaking into a void, not playing off one another at all. And on top of that the narrative voice is inconsistent with the narrator’s speaking voice, which bothered me. Except for the usage of the word “I” to denote who was speaking, I would never have believed it was the same person. Perhaps this was done for stylistic reasons, but I felt it was awkward. This could be simply that I’m not sure what

This problem with dialogue is almost exacerbated by the pure and beautiful prose in between. Really, Dickey is a poet. He conjures stunning images with remarkable simplicity, and is well-able to evoke the spirit of that wild Georgian river and the fear and grandeur it inspires in four unskilled men who attempt to master it and themselves.

This is a very manly book—it is about men, and as near as I can tell (as a woman) it delivers a view of the world that is purely masculine. Indeed, the only appearances by women are like bookends to the story; they appear at the beginning and the end to offer contrast to the heart of the story. This didn’t offend me. It is interesting to see, actually, how little women and feminine imagery seemed to play in this text. Some reviewers have mentioned homoerotic undertones in Deliverance, and although I can see why they might interpret it that way, I felt it was something more than that (or less).

Ed, the narrator, and to a lesser degree, Drew and Bobby, idolize the über macho Lewis, whom they have followed into the wilds of southern Georgia. Lewis is the kind of man who doesn’t feel alive until his life is threatened—a disillusioned suburbanite who throws himself into thrill seeking hobbies to distract himself from his own mortality. Though the other men are mostly satisfied with their lives, Lewis’ need for adventure is contagious and they find themselves agreeing to a white water canoe trip that is completely out of their league.

The book is rife with comparisons between the men, physical and psychological, and most of this centres upon Ed’s idealization of Lewis’ masculinity and physical prowess. There is a sexualized kind of flavour to this idealization as well, though I felt it came out of Ed’s desire to be like Lewis rather than some repressed urge to sleep with him. Sure, Ed admires Lewis’ glistening thigh muscles a few times, but he does so through a lens of hero worship.

For Ed, this trip is about his own masculinity. He needs to prove to himself that he can be like Lewis, and when they get out there on the river, he needs to prove to himself that he can best nature. Nature is an interesting character in the book as well; the river plays as integral a role in the story as any of the four men. But Dickey keeps nature a nearly androgynous entity, and when he stray from this even nature becomes a masculine force. This is an odd departure from tradition in western literature, I think, especially for bodies of water which are nearly always described in feminine terms. Dickey’s nature is all crashing white water, sharp rocks, rigid cliff-faces, and roaring in the ears. It emasculates the group as surely as do the sodomizing hillbillies the book is so famous for.

Bobby coasts through to survival, but never manages to reclaim what he lost during the rape—it is suggested that he was a lesser man to begin with, and he is certainly diminished in the end, so much so that Ed cannot even look him in the eye again when they return to the city. Lewis, too, is reduced by the trip, though it is the river that bests him, not the men.

Ed’s reclamation of his own manhood comes as he climbs the rock face to the top of the gorge to face the gunman. Although he manages to kill his rival, it is really the climb itself that is representative of Ed’s growth, and which symbolizes the change in him. What is interesting is that climbing the cliff is one of the most sexualized scenes in the text, akin to the rape, as if by climbing the cliff Ed is taking something from nature which it does not want to give. When Ed looks down upon the river, from halfway up the cliff wall, he imagines he can see his own face in the rocks below—he has made nature his own, and he will survive because of it.

This is definitely a book I would recommend to people with an interest in the outdoors. I think it’s likely necessary to the enjoyment of the text. Dickey’s writing feels very true to the experience of being far from civilization, he seems to understand the vulnerability of man in nature. But I’m not sure it’s a thing that you can understand if you’ve never been there yourself. Not that you have to be flying down a gorge in a canoe to understand the power of nature, and it is easy to imagine that kind of fear without doing it oneself. Yet I can see how the subtlety of Dickey’s prose—particularly in Ed’s more reflective moods—might be lost on someone who hasn’t spent a night in the woods. Dickey believes in that power, even in the calmness of a moonlit campsite on the edge of a tranquil stretch of water. And I do too.