Saturday, July 18, 2009

142. A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess

History: Published in 1962, the title is taken from an old Cockney expression, "as queer as a clockwork orange", and alludes to the prevention of the main character's exercise of his free will through the use of a classical conditioning technique. With this technique, the subject’s emotional responses to violence are systematically paired with a negative stimulation in the form of nausea caused by an emetic medicine administered just before the presentation of films depicting "ultra-violent" situations. Written from the perspective of a seemingly biased and unapologetic protagonist, the novel also contains an experiment in language: Burgess creates a new speech that is the teenage slang of the not-too-distant future.
Plot: Alex, a young teenager living in a near-future England, leads his gang on nightly orgies of random, opportunistic violence. Alex's friends ("droogs" in the novel's Anglo-Russified slang) are Dim, a slow-witted bruiser who is the gang's muscle; Georgie; and Pete. Alex, quick-witted and possessing an often disconcerting sense of humour, is clearly the smartest of the group and even seemingly cultured.
The novel opens with the thugs hunkered down in their favourite Milkbar, drinking drugged milk to hype themselves for the night's mayhem. They beat up a scholar walking home from the library, stamp a panhandling derelict, scuffle with a rival gang led by Billyboy, rob a newsagent and leave its owners unconscious, then steal a car. Joyriding in the countryside, they break into an isolated cottage and maul the young couple living there, beating the husband and raping his wife. The droogs ditch the car, and Dim and Georgie make clear their dissatisfaction with Alex's domination of the gang. At home in his dreary flat, Alex plays classical music thunderously while bringing himself to climax with fantasies of even more orgiastic violence.
Alex skips school the next morning and is visited by P. R. Deltoid, a "post-corrective advisor" assigned to remediate his juvenile delinquency. Visiting his favourite music shop, Alex picks up a pair of pre-teen girls and takes them back to his parents' flat, where he forces them to indulge in sexual interaction after being provided with alcohol.
Later, Alex chats with his parents, who are skeptical of his claims about having a night job but too intimidated to press the issue. Arriving late to meet the droogs, who have already pumped themselves up with "the old knifey moloko" (i.e., drugged milk), Alex is at a disadvantage. Georgie challenges Alex for leadership of the gang, demanding that they pull a "mansized" job by robbing a wealthy old woman who lives alone with her cats. Alex quells the rebellion by slashing Dim and Georgie in a knife fight, then in a show of generosity takes them to a bar for some fortifying drinks. Georgie and Dim are ready to call it a night, but Alex bullies them into proceeding with the burglary. Alex enters through a second-floor window and, after a farcical struggle, knocks the old woman unconscious. When he tries to flee, Dim attacks him and the droogs leave Alex incapacitated in the doorway as they run off. Alex is roughed up by the police. The next day he finds out that the woman has died and he will be charged with murder.
Alex is sent to prison. After enduring prison life for two years, Alex gets a job as an assistant to the prison chaplain. He feigns an interest in religion and amuses himself by reading the Bible for its lurid descriptions of "the old yahoodies (Jews) tolchocking (beating) each other" and imagining himself taking part in "the nailing-in" (the Crucifixion of Jesus). Alex learns of his ex-droog Georgie's death by an intended victim during a botched robbery. After helping to kill (although accidentally) a fellow prisoner in his cell, Alex is selected to become the subject in the first full-scale trial of the Ludovico Technique. The technique itself is a form of aversion therapy, in which Alex is given a drug that induces extreme nausea while being forced to watch graphically violent films for two weeks. Strapped into a seat before a large screen, Alex is forced to watch an unrelenting series of violent acts. During the sessions, Alex begins to realise that not only the violent acts but the music on the soundtrack is triggering his nausea attacks. By the end of the treatment, Alex is unable to listen to Beethoven's 9th symphony without incapacitating nausea and distress.
A few weeks later, Alex is presented to an audience of prison and government officials as a successfully rehabilitated inmate and potential member of society. Alex's conditioning makes him unable to defend himself against a pummeling bully and cripples him with nausea when the sight of a scantily clad woman arouses his predatory sexual impulses. The prison chaplain rises to denounce the treatment and accuses the state of stripping Alex of the ability to choose good over evil. And so Alex is released into society.
After his release from prison, Alex's former victims seek revenge. The Ludovico treatment leaves him ill when he attempts violence, so he is powerless. Alex returns home, joyful at the thought of starting afresh but finds that his parents have rented out his room to a lodger named Joe, essentially "replacing" their son. Despondently wandering, Alex stops at the Korova Milk Bar and drinks synthemesc-laced milk, as opposed to his usual drencrom-laced milk. He visits the music store, but the technique made him incapable of listening to his beloved classical music. Alex decides to commit suicide, but is unable to because the technique prevents him from committing any act of violence, including against himself. In the public library, Alex is quickly recognised by the elderly librarian whom he had beaten up with his droogs in chapter one. With his friends, the librarian attacks and beats Alex. The police (called by the librarian) turn out to be Dim and Billyboy. Taking advantage of their positions, they take Alex to the town's edge, beat him, nearly drown him, and leave him for dead.
Alex wanders in a daze through the countryside until he collapses at the door of an isolated cottage. Too late he realises this is the home he and his droogs invaded at the start of the book. He is taken in by F. Alexander, the husband of the woman the droogs gang-raped; Mr. Alexander doesn't recognise Alex because the droogs were wearing masks during the assault. We learn that Mrs. Alexander died of the injuries inflicted during the gang-rape, and her husband has decided to continue "where her fragrant memory persists" despite the horrid memories. Mr. Alexander recognises Alex from newspaper publicity about the behaviour-mod treatment, and sees an opportunity to use him as a political weapon by turning him into a poster child for the victims of fascism. Alex has been careless with words during his time in Mr. Alexander's care, and the writer begins to suspect they have met before. One of his political activist friends takes Alex aside and puts the question to him bluntly: Alex, cornered, makes a non-denial denial by saying "Lord knows I've suffered". "We'll speak no more of it", the friend assures him, but later on Alex is taken to another house, locked into a high room and tormented with classical music, triggering the maddening effect of the Ludovico treatment. Driven to insanity by the music, Alex jumps from his bedroom window in an attempt to end his life.
Alex wakes up in a hospital, where he learns that the government, trying to reverse the bad publicity it incurred in the wake of Alex's suicide attempt, has reversed the effects of the Ludovico treatment. Mr. Alexander has been incarcerated in a mental institution, "for his own protection and for yours," Alex is told. In return for agreeing to "play ball" with the powers that be, Alex is promised a cushy job at high salary. His parents take him back in, and Alex happily ponders returning to his life of ultra-violence.
In the final chapter, Alex finds himself half-heartedly preparing for yet another night of crime with a new trio of droogs. After watching them beat an innocent stranger walking home with a newspaper, he begins to feel bored with his life of violence. He abandons the gang then has a chance encounter with Pete, who has reformed and married. Alex begins contemplating giving up crime himself to become a productive member of society and start a family of his own, while reflecting on the notion that his own children could be just as destructive as he was himself.
Review: Anthony Burgess’s own Nadsat — the slangy dialect comprised of Russian jargon, skewed syntax, and odd bits of Cockney rhyming slang in which the whole of A Clockwork Orange is narrated - after the first few pages, attentive readers should have no difficulty navigating the linguistic tangle of little Alex’s unique speech — its strange rhythms and playful usage having become a sheer pleasure by novel’s end. I used a glossary for most of the book, which was helpful.
Compelling too is the person of Alex, the bright, vicious, ignorant, selfish, and strangely endearing little monster at the heart of the story. And, despite his vileness, the reader cannot help but like him. His narrative voice is charming, his youthful enthusiasm almost relatable, and the light-hearted innocence with which he approaches his despicable acts has a way of distancing the reader from the real horror of the events depicted. So too does the Nadsat lingo form a barrier between the reality of what is transpiring and Alex’s filtered perception of it.
This kind of distancing is absolutely necessary for a reader if they are to sympathize with Alex enough to follow his character arc, and if this aspect of the novel had not worked, the entire story would have fallen flat. But work it does, and work brilliantly, and it pulls the reader along as Alex is arrested for killing, thrown into an overcrowded state jail and, finally, selected for a Pavlovian experimental rehabilitation technique that will transform him into something else completely.
Alex emerges back into the world, and is subjected to neglect, abuse, and manipulation by those that see in him a perfect tool to use against the government. It is clear that Alex has become something less than human, that he is a thing without choices, lacking even the ability to assert his humanity in the face of those that wish to take advantage of him.
Now, maybe that is a kind of justice, but Burgess is presenting a more complete argument than a mere who-deserves-what. In this future world, where the state wishes to smooth every square peg under its control — by knocking corners off if necessary —Alex’s plight is indicative of the lengths at which societies will go to suppress individuality. As Alex sees it, his ultraviolence is a form of self-expression, a spot of kroovy-red color in a gray, conformist world. He makes it quite clear that he is no victim of circumstance or neglect or cognitive deficiency — on the contrary, he chooses evil because he wishes to do evil. Not an attitude that is easy to embrace, but Burgess is concerned with elaborating on the fullness of the moral equation of choice in A Clockwork Orange; that goodness cannot exist without evil or the choice of evil, and that coerced goodness, goodness that is imposed and not chosen, is inhuman. Alex, a pitiful puppet by the book’s end, has been stripped of his humanity by the so-called therapy that was to turn him into a good little boy again. He has become a clockwork orange.
Which, if you were wondering, is an old bit of Cockney slang Burgess had always been fond of, “queer as a clockwork orange,” being about as queer a thing as could be. Alex, like all of us, is organic, imperfect, capable of sweetness and acidity, but he is reduced to a mechanism, a wind-up toy that behaves only as the state wishes him to behave. Even the best that was in him, such as his exuberance, initiative, and his love of music, has been taken away. But that is not the full story, for malenky Alex becomes a political pawn, first used by a radical opposition group, then by the government itself. He’s come full circle, in a way, and is given back his free will by the same people that took it away in the first place.
Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange with twenty-one chapters, three equal sections of seven adding up to twenty-one — a number that represents coming of age. What comes as a big surprise to those only familiar with the American version (cut with Burgess’s permission, but not endorsement) is that in the final chapter of A Clockwork Orange little Alex grows up.
He’s back out in the world, cured, viscous and nasty as ever, teaching a new generation of droogs the pleasures of the old dirty twenty-to-one. But Alex is changing, he’s uneasy and bored with the senselessness of his life. Burgess talks about this in his introduction to the complete 1986 edition of the novel, saying that the sort of mindless and unthinking destructiveness of Alex’s nighttime pursuits is really the purview of the young, and that with maturity youth outgrows such impulses. While that’s an optimistic view, and an accurate one in many senses, I don’t think Burgess means it to excuse away the nightmare reality of his world as somehow the natural state of things. Indeed, Burgess’s near future London shows many of the hallmarks of today’s society, in which parents are terrified to discipline their egomanical children and a shallow youth culture that prizes a lack of self-restraint as the ultimate form of self-expression has become one of the dominant social forces of our age. Burgess is saying that the same impulses that would lead a government to treat its citizens like rats in a Skinner-box, the same beliefs in determinism and therapy-over-responsibility that lead to the Ludovico Technique, are the same basic notions that have given rise to the nanny-state mentality today. A mentality that can create a world like Alex’s London, in which the night belongs to youthful predators that live completely separate lives from the adult world around them. But, as Burgess asserts, some of them at least will tire of the emptiness of destruction and search for a more meaningful life. Certainly Alex does, and he himself realizes that he is, shockingly enough, on his way to growing up when he encounters his ex-droog Pete at the end of the novel. Pete has a job, an apartment, a wife — in short, Pete has a future. Alex decides he wants one too, and he makes that decision all on his own.
And that, in the end, is the whole point of the book. Just as the unnatural goodness Alex was forced to endure was inhuman, so was the idea that he was a purely evil creature. It all comes down to freedom of choice, and Alex, finally, begins making the right choices. We don’t see what sort of regrets he will live with, or if he’ll ever be able to make the leap from leader-of-droogs to ordinary Joe — but he has at last chosen a new direction and that is what is important.
Opening Line: “What’s it going to be then, eh?”
Closing Line: “But you, O my brothers, remember sometimes thy little Alex that was. Amen. And all that cal.”
Quotes: "Suddenly, I viddied what I had to do, and what I had wanted to do, and that was to do myself in; to snuff it, to blast off for ever out of this wicked, cruel world. One moment of pain perhaps and, then, sleep forever, and ever and ever."
Rating: Very Good

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