Book review: “A Clockwork Orange” by Anthony Burgess

What’s it going to be then, eh?

Add that to my list of famous first-liners, right next to It was the best of times, it was the worst of times and Call me Ishmael. I just finished the gruesome book under by Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange. I was scrolling through Goodreads the other day when I saw a friend had finished Fahrenheit 451, which got me in the mood for something dystopian– although I didn’t want to pull a copycat and read Fahrenheit 451 too.

I remember first hearing about A Clockwork Orange when a coworker of mine proudly displayed it as his employee recommendation at the customer service desk. He told me it probably wasn’t my cup of tea, and should probably wait til I wasn’t so naive. Yeah, nice guy. Maybe I chose to read it just to show him!

But seriously, this book is extremely violent. Just the first chapter, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to go through with it. I was curious what would induce a writer to write such a piece. Interestingly enough, the author admits he’s a bit ashamed of this work in the introduction. He says, I first published A Clockwork Orange in 1962, which ought to be far enough in the past to be erased from the world’s literary memory. It refuses to be erased, however… I should be glad to disown it for various reasons, but this is not permitted… I have to go on living with A Clockwork Orange, and this means that I have a sort of authorial duty to it. When it comes to why he included such violence, he admits it upfront it was a bit of showmanship: It seems priggish or pollyannish to deny that my intention in writing the work was to titillate the nastier propensities of my readers. My own healthy inheritance of original sin comes out in the book and I enjoyed raping and ripping by proxy. It is the novelist’s innate cowardice that makes him depute to imaginary personalities the sins he is too cautious to commit himself. It is the high amount of violence that caused me to not give high marks for the book. I read it for cultural significance, and I can give it credit where credit is due. But I wouldn’t want to read it again.

One thing that I do have to give Burgess is his creativity with language. He invented a crazy language (or perhaps dialect, as it is mostly broken English with a smattering of Russian) in which most of the book is written. I didn’t know what I had gotten myself into, as I tried to decode the first page or so:

There was me, this is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassadocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry.

Sentences are smattered with detvotchkas and malchicks and glazzies and tolchocks. After you get through about three chapters, you can make your way through on context clues, but if you were to flip to any random page while browsing at the bookstore, you likely couldn’t make head nor tail of it. Give it a few months, and it will all look like gibberish to me again too probably. I’m a little nervous quoting the book at all in this review: I may have to provide translations.

Free will and dystopias

If I were to compare it to other dystopian novels I have read, it felt most similar to 1984. It had similar threads of seeking some form of authentic life in the face of a repressive government or hopeless prospects. In 1984, the protagonist Winston Smith finds reprieve in his mini-rebellions living with his girlfriend. In A Clockwork Orange, Alex’s tastes are much less kept to himself: he goes out with his gang raping, beating, and stealing. Free will plays a central role in the novel, as it does in many dystopian novels.

There is an interesting commentary on socialist programs and “equity” theory. If everyone was given a fair chance to succeed– a good upbringing, enough to eat, a good home, educational opportunities, healthcare– then everyone in theory should succeed. Everyone is good at heart, right? But that’s not the case here. Alex’s officer in charge of him at school complains of his behavior:

What gets into you at all? We study the problem and we’ve been studying it for damn well near a century, yes, but we get no farther with our studies. You’ve got a good home here, good loving parents, and you’ve got not bad of a brain. Is it some devil that crawls inside you?

The problem is people have this inconvenient thing called free will. You can give them all the opportunity you want, but it still won’t guarantee that they will become productive citizens.

The government doesn’t really play a large part of the story until Part 2. And unlike 1984, the government isn’t quite a totalitarian state, but it seems clearly on the fast track to becoming one. One character comments: We’ve seen it all before in other countries. The thin edge of the wedge. Before we know where we are we shall have the full apparatus of totalitarianism… Some of us have to fight. There are great traditions of liberty to defend. I am no partisan man. Where I see the infamy I seek to erase it. The tradition of liberty means all. The common people will let it go, oh yes. They will sell liberty for a quieter life. That is why the must be prodded–. That sounds awfully like Hayek’s discussion of how true freedom is being sold for something politicians like to call “economic freedom” today.

I don’t want to include any spoilers here. I will say that any Latter-Day Saint readers will be very familiar with some of the concepts of free will discussed here. There’s a really neat passage where a chaplain is talking to Alex about free will: What does God want? Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has good imposed upon him? Deep and hard questions… It leaves you with a bit of ambivalence, because the book confronts you directly with the consequences of free will. Is free will worth it when it can cause so much pain? And this book doesn’t pose it in the abstract. You are following the “protagonist” who engages in such heinous crimes and describes them in such gory detail. You get all his horrible thoughts too. And then somehow, the author gets you to feel sorry for the guy!

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