I have to admit that I was a little concerned when my book group chose A Clockwork Orange as May’s read – it’s a book that I’ve tried to read several times before, but have never finished. I’m pleased to say that I did succeed this time, and that I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected!
It’s a little hard to know to know what to say about the plot of this one. So much of what is key to the tale happens relatively late on in the novel and, as a rule of thumb, I try to avoid discussing anything that happens after the halfway mark. That said, I consider this story to be well known enough that I think most people know what happens from either the book, the film or just from general pop culture references. But I don’t like to assume, so I’ve “borrowed” the following synopsis from Goodreads:
A vicious fifteen-year-old “droog” is the central character of this 1962 classic, whose stark terror was captured in Stanley Kubrick’s magnificent film of the same title.
In Anthony Burgess’s nightmare vision of the future, where criminals take over after dark, the story is told by the central character, Alex, who talks in a brutal invented slang that brilliantly renders his and his friends’ social pathology. A Clockwork Orange is a frightening fable about good and evil, and the meaning of human freedom. When the state undertakes to reform Alex—to “redeem” him—the novel asks, “At what cost?”
Much of the difficultly I’ve had with this novel previously is due to the language used, as there are multiple words used that have Slavic roots, such as:
- devotchka meaning woman or wife
- glazzies for eyes
- rot for mouth
Added to this, there are multiple slang terms used, such as sinny for cinema, pretty polly is rhyming slang for lolly (i.e. money) and to do something by oneself is to do it oddy knocky. Whilst some words can be worked out from the context they are written in, others cannot (not by me, at least!), and my (Kindle) edition of the text didn’t have a glossary of terms. This does make it a difficult read, and I found it a little frustrating to have to stop and look up so many words as I was reading, although I did get used to this, and it did get easier the further I read. If you can get past this it’s a rewarding read, and definitely one that is worth persevering with.
For me, the point that Burgess is trying to convey through this novel is an ethical one – that it is better to have free will, which necessitates the existence of violence in society, rather than enforcing good behaviour upon everyone:
Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who had the good imposed upon him?
Burgess pushes this to the extreme in presenting the reader with the uber-violent Alex, but to enable choice we have to accept society’s rotten eggs. It’s a point that Burgess makes particularly well through this novel and what Alex goes through.
One element that I noticed was the use of the word “like” as a slang interjection:
there were four of us malchicks and it was usually like one for all and all for one.
The use of the word like in this way wouldn’t have been part of common parlance when this novel was published in 1962, although this isn’t the first example of it being used in this way (according to the tinterweb, at least). With many dystopian novels, there are often elements that the current day reader can relate to that wouldn’t have been present at the time the novel was written. To me, Alex and his droogs represent modern day thugs more than they resemble the youths of the 50s and 60s, something enhanced by this use of language.
A Clockwork Orange presents a wonderfully bleak dystopia where violence rules and extreme measures are being considered in order to impose some form of order. Whilst it won’t be to everyone’s tastes given some of the more violent aspects of the novel, this is a worthwhile, if somewhat difficult, read, and one that I would recommend.