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.

Non-Fiction Book Review: The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman

5/5 Stars

Note: This review refers to an uncorrected and unpublished proof copy, provided by Penguin Group (Canada) through the Goodreads Giveaways program.

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking is described as “a self-help book for people who hate self-help books”. I’ll admit, I’m probably the ideal reader for this kind of book. I do hate self-help books. The problem is, I hate self-help books enough that if The Antidote were to be found only in the self-help section of the book store, I would never find it. Or if I did accidentally stumble upon it, I would automatically assume that some self-help guru thought they could trick unwitting nay-sayers into buying into the ‘cult of optimism’ by appealing to their curmudgeonly position only to perform some sleight of hand mid-way through to end up at the same, tired “Be Positive” message that is pandered to us everywhere else. I sincerely hope that Penguin doesn’t choose to market The Antidote as a self-help book, because the genre doesn’t do Burkeman’s work justice.

The Antidote is both a philosophy and psychology text. It analyzes the 20th and 21st century’s obsession with happiness and not only questions the ways in which we choose to pursue the elusive emotion, but why we bother to pursue it at all. It raises interesting questions about the things we are taught to value in life and the validity of our assumptions about what makes us happy in the first place. Not surprisingly, to any of the realists and pessimists out there, pop culture gurus have it all wrong. The ‘cult of optimism’ that Burkeman deconstructs is poisoning our minds and lives, ultimately making us less happy and content. The Antidote successfully explains why the societies that most aggressively seek happiness are often the most discontent and unhappy in the world.

But The Antidote is not, in itself, a self-help book. It points the way for those who are interested in getting deeper into a study of the “negative path” to happiness. I have a virtual shopping cart full of new, interesting-looking reads on everything from Stoicism and Buddhism to Business and Marketing Strategies—and none of them are self-help titles. Burkeman’s “negative path” is not a strategy for sneaking up on happiness through negativity. It is not really about seeking happiness at all. It is a guide to ways of looking at the world that do not directly value happiness and how letting go of our obsession with the emotions (and its antitheses) might actually be the closest that we get to achieving it.

The Antidote is short and concise. It is well-written, easy to understand without being condescending. Burkeman tackles complex philosophical and psychological theories and leaves the reader with something tangible and useful to everyday life. In each chapter he discusses a different “negative path,” but he ties the paths together well and refers back to his thesis often enough that the reader is never left wondering how each philosophy relates to the next, or to the pursuit of happiness itself.

Overall, I believe The Antidote is a huge success. As a natural Stoic (I would never have known to classify myself as such before reading this book) I found my own personal world-view to be validated. Many of the personal anxieties I’ve had, stemming from being a pessimist in a world so blindly focused on optimism, have been deflated. I realize that, in the greater scheme of things, my way of seeing has been much more common historically and that this obsession with happiness for the sake of happiness is as much a contrivance of the modern era as are microwave dinners. I now have an arsenal (in my virtual shopping cart) of like-minded philosophers from which to hone my argument. It is actually a relief to be able to put the words some of the things that I have instinctively felt my entire life. I look forward to looking more deeply into some of these ideas and solidifying my own personal philosophy.

My only complaints about this book are not actually about the book at all. And really, I should call them concerns rather than complaints. I am concerned that The Antidote will be marketed as a self-help book, and that it will never reach the audience it deserves. I am also confused by the book jacket description of it as a travelogue. Of course Burkeman does travel in the course of his research, but it is not a travelogue usual sense of the word. The book is entirely about the ideas that he is pursue and never about where he goes in the course of his pursuit. Many chapters I would be hard-pressed to recall where they occurred (with the exception of a couple of more obvious references). I was a little put off by these two descriptions. I entered into a draw for the book as a Goodreads First Reads Giveaway, but likely wouldn’t have purchased this book based on the cover and blurb. I was pleasantly surprised, obviously. And having read it, I will likely purchase a few copies for people I believe will benefit from its message once it is available. Like I said, I’m concerned that The Antidote won’t reach the audience it deserves.

But all I can do is my part, and here it is. I’m spreading the word. the Antidote is a great little book that might just change your life, or at least your perceptions of it. A truly genuine 5/5 stars from this reader. I hope this is the beginning of a change in cultural perceptions, I hope the “negative path” takes off and revolutionizes the way we see ourselves and our world. But if it doesn’t, at least it give us the tools for change on a personal level.