The Forgotten Core of A Clockwork Orange

‘Of course it was horrible,’ smiled Dr Branom. ‘Violence is a horrible thing. That’s what you’re learning now. Your body is learning it. … You are being made sane.’

Given A Clockwork Orange‘s standing as one of the greatest and most influential books of the 20th century, you would expect Anthony Burgess to carry a considerable level of pride for his most well-known work.

Not so. In his Confessions of Anthony Burgess he described being “sickened by my own excitement at setting it down”; in 1985 he went as far as to say he should not have written it at all.

Part of his regret came from the 1971 film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick, which Burgess felt ignored his book’s core message and instead twisted it into a glorification of sex and violence. “It made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about,” Burgess said, “and the misunderstanding will pursue me until I die.”

But in Kubrick’s defence, it’s not hard to see where that misunderstanding came from—A Clockwork Orange is an extremely violent book. Inspired by his first wife’s assault by drunken American servicemen, it follows Alex, a sociopathic teenage delinquent living in a dystopian vision of England. During the day, Alex skips school to the frustration of his social worker; at night, he terrorises the streets of his hometown with fellow thugs Georgie, Dim and Pete. Hyped up on drugs and bloodlust, Alex and his gang tear around in stolen cars, assaulting strangers, robbing shops and invading homes.

And so it begins. Put the book down after a few chapters and you’d be forgiven for thinking it nothing more than an orgy of ultra-violence, as gleefully written as it is perpetrated. Alex and his “droogs” rip through the pages like a gallery of Gotham City villains, laughing away as they beat and batter, while Burgess hides the sick details of their spree beneath a blanket of his own “Nadsat” street slang:

That was old Dim’s cue and he went grinning for this veck’s dithering rot, crack crack, first left fistie then right, so that our dear old droog the red—red vino on tap—started to pour and spot the nice clean carpet.

Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (Warner Bros., 1971)

But it would be wrong to judge A Clockwork Orange on its opening alone. As Burgess himself said, this book is about more than just violence; underneath the outer level of perversity, it’s packed full of questions about free will and human behaviour.

Because as Alex’s criminality gets ever more impassioned, so too do the efforts of those intent on reforming him. And when the threats of the police and his social worker prove impotent, the government decides the only option remaining to curb his brutality for good is to subject him to the Ludovico Technique, a form of nauseating aversion therapy designed to condition away Alex’s violent compulsions.

It’s that—Alex’s enforced rehabilitation during the second act—that form the centre Burgess felt was lost in the Kubrick version. Because although Act I leaves no doubts about the barbarity of Alex’s inner nature and the need for it to be dealt with, Burgess makes it abundantly clear as to what he thinks of his characters’ preferred solution.

It’s enough just to read his descriptions of the doctors and officials overseeing Alex’s treatment: these are slimy, almost lizard-like, characters—gargoyles who loom over Alex from a moral perch as sound as a crumbling church roof. Seen through that lens, their work comes across as meddlesome and sadistic; one image that came to my mind was of children pulling the limbs off an unwanted toy.

And, in a way, that is exactly what Dr Branom and his behavioural team do to Alex. They don’t rehabilitate him, they leave him impotent, stripped of the free will to choose between violence and compassion. The Ludovico Technique transforms him into the titular clockwork orange, described by Burgess as “the junction of the organic—in other words, life—and the mechanical, the cold, the disciplined”. Conditioned by fear into doing good, is Alex really any better than a man who makes the choice to do bad?

And that, O my brothers, is what A Clockwork Orange is really about.

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Booktrotting in Korea: Drifting House

From the mountain springs of Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country and across the Sea of Japan, my Booktrotting journey returns to mainland Asia via the Korean peninsula, with Krys Lee and her short story collection Drifting House.

The day the siblings left to find their mother, snow devoured the northern mining town. Houses loomed like ghosts. The government’s face was everywhere: on the sides of a marooned cart, above the lintel of the gray post office, on placards scattered throughout the surrounding mountains praising the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. And in the grain sack strapped to the oldest brother Woncheol’s back, their crippled sister, the weight of a few books.

Earlier in the year I read Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, a grim collection of short stories that read like a blacklight shone on the murkier fringes of American society. The book wasn’t entirely to my taste as a reader, but I did think once finished that its focus on race, gender, age and class in the States would have made it perfect for when this Booktrotting tour eventually reaches the USA.

It was a good sign, then, that when I started reading Drifting House—Krys Lee’s debut story collection about modern life on the Korean peninsula—I was immediately reminded of Everything Ravaged. Like Wells Tower, Lee takes a country known for its soaring economy and progressive society, and opts to show none of that; instead, her stories turn to families blasted by domestic violence, women in the grip of oppressive husbands, the laid-off living rough at the foot of luxury high rises. She visits America too, where once well-off immigrants from Seoul are pressed into cramped Koreatown apartments, and even takes one story across the Demilitarised Zone to follow two North Korean brothers desperately seeking refuge in China.

Seoul by night, Philippe Teuwen / CC BY-SA 2.0

As you can imagine, that doesn’t exactly make Drifting House the gentlest of reads. For only nine stories and 210 pages, Lee creates an awful lot of truly unsettling scenes—one particular standout for me was in the very first story, ‘A Temporary Marriage’, in which a browbeaten divorcee tracking down her abusive ex-husband in Los Angeles braces herself expectantly for a beating when she angers the man with whom she is staying.

But as awful as the actual events of these episodes are, it’s Lee’s writing (in the best possible way) that really drives home the discomfort. Compared with Wells Tower, whose gritty style often balloons into pure shock value, Lee never appears to revel in what her characters do; instead, she narrates their actions almost matter-of-factly, as if torn somewhere on the line between abhorrence and sympathy. She suggests that her characters aren’t inherently bullies, thieves and murderers, but are gradually made more capable of committing vile acts by the harshness of what surrounds them: in the final story, ‘Beautiful Women’, Lee writes “here, boys blow up a frog to see how many pieces are created. There is a camaraderie in robbing small shops at knife-point. Men beat up their wives, their wives beat their children, the children beat their friends.” With the lengths to which Lee goes to understand her characters’ motivations, even their vilest actions are made somehow human—and all the more frightening for that.

View from Busan Tower, Iwy / CC-BY-2.0

I can’t say I was that surprised to find conflict forming such a key theme in Drifting House. From what I already knew of Korea’s history (chiefly the Korean war of the 1950s and the peninsula’s prior occupation by Imperial Japan) I was expecting some elements of that violent past to still be present in Lee’s stories—much like how the many guerrilla and revolutionary wars of Latin America weighed heavily on my Booktrotting reads there.

But what did surprise me was how much of Drifting House‘s conflicts centred around personal issues, such as family relationships and in particular the treatment of women in Korean society.

Historically, thanks in large part to the teachings of Chinese philosopher Confucius, the lives of Korean women centred around little more than domesticity. Access to formal education was rare and basic legal rights sparse, and for the most part young Korean girls were raised with deference and subordination to their future husbands in mind. Officially, that all changed after the Second World War, when South Korea’s 1948 constitution ruled all citizens equal before the law and free from discrimination; since the late 1980s especially the south’s government has been pushing to address gender inequality, starting with a series of employment and welfare acts designed to level the legal standing between men and women.

But according to Krys Lee and Drifting House, whilst Korean women may have legislative equality, their social status is still very much dictated by patriarchal traditions. The female characters in Lee’s stories are often educated, working, even wealthy, but none of that counts for them when it comes to demands to obey their fathers and husbands, or keep a respectable house. And when those demands aren’t met, all too often the response is force and intimidation; the result, unhappiness and pain.

Koreatown, NYC, Ingfbruno / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Up next, my Booktrotting tour will cross the North Korean border into China, and join Yiyun Li’s short story collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.

May in Books: Stone of Farewell; The Deathly Hallows; In a Land of Paper Gods

With May bringing the first heatwave of the summer, the days have been just perfect lately for sitting under a tree and reading al fresco. And even though that means the weather here is beyond lovely, I always like my books this time of year to go somewhere—whether that’s to the fantasy realm of Osten Ard, a Chinese missionary school, or back to the nostalgic halls of Hogwarts.


Stone of Farewell, Tad WilliamsWhen I found The Dragonbone Chair, the first part of Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, last year, I fell in love with it completely—not because it’s a well-crafted paragon of the fantasy genre, but because it’s utterly ridiculous, dripping with just about every trope you can imagine, and absolutely impossible to take too seriously.

Stone of Farewell, the second part of the series, is pretty much more of the same. Admittedly, it was quite slow-going compared with The Dragonbone Chair (it’s more or less 800 pages of displaced heroes traipsing about and trying to regroup in the wilderness) but the middle books in trilogies are always a bit hit-and-miss, and it’s not as if I was expecting anything more than what I got—a harmless, silly flight of fancy.


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling (reread)

Nothing says summer like a bunch of school leavers on a camping trip, right? Granted, those school leavers also happen to be on the run from the forces of magical fascism, and they spend less time drinking round the campfire and more time just trying not to die—but nevertheless, when it comes to some light-hearted adventure reading, you can’t really go wrong with revisiting Harry Potter.

Though saying that, I think this will probably be the last time I reread these books for a while now. It’s been an interesting experience going back to where I fell in love with books in the first place, especially from this new perspective of being a writer and an English student, but as much as I adore Harry Potter I think it’s time to put him back on the shelf and leave him be for a while.


In a Land of Paper Gods, Rebecca Mackenzie

In a boarding school atop the mountain of Lushan, a band of mischievous missionary children play at being prophetesses whilst their parents pursue their calling across China. But at the mountain’s feet lies a country at war, and as the children play their games the Japanese are drawing ever nearer to Lushan.

Paper Gods is a book that’s been on my radar for a while now, but it wasn’t until I was introduced to Japan’s wartime conquests in eastern Asia by The Garden of Evening Mists that I got round to picking it up—although once I did, I could barely put it down again. There’s not really much more to say about it other than it’s just that compelling; except that it would be wrong not to mention Mackenzie’s brilliance in bringing the relatively alien world of a missionary school in 1940s China to life, a skill which took Paper Gods  to the shortlist for the 2017 Ondaatje Prize.

If you’re a devotee of Second World War fiction or you just want a book that’ll take you somewhere this summer, In a Land of Paper Gods will do you just fine.

Booktrotting in Malaysia: The Garden of Evening Mists

After a brief tour of Oceania, my Booktrotting tour now begins its Asian leg, with a window on post-war Malaysia in Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists.

It was Sunday, and the tea-fields were deserted. In the valleys, the points of light from the farmhouses were as faint as stars behind a weave of clouds. The moon was retreating behind the mountains, the same moon I had seen at almost every dawn in the camp. So long after my imprisonment, there were still moments when I found it difficult to believe that the war was over, that I had survived.

It is 1951, and Malaya is beginning to undo the damage wrought by its brutal Second World War occupation by Imperial Japan. Its people are recovering too, and for Teoh Yun Ling, a former detainee in a Japanese internment camp, that means constructing a memorial garden for her sister, who perished where Yun Ling survived.

Her endeavours lead her to the mist-bound slopes of Malaya’s mountain highlands, and to the door of Nakamura Aritomo: once the chief gardener to Emperor Hirohito himself, now living in exile in the land his own people ravaged. Under Aritomo’s guidance, Yun Ling learns how to bring to life the garden her sister always dreamt of—and all the while comes to terms with the horrors of her past.

Bharat Tea Plantation, Bjørn Christian Tørrissen / CC-BY-SA-3.0

When I started my Booktrotting project, The Garden of Evening Mists was exactly the kind of novel I hoped I would encounter. As a story it’s spellbinding, a rich weave of complex characters and emotions that unfolds delicately through Yun Ling’s pain-driven narrative; and, spanning as it does some of the most seismic events in the region’s recent past, I could hardly have asked for a better grounding in the historical foundations of modern Malaysia.

Although the events of this novel are huge in scale (covering not only the Pacific War but also the communist guerrilla “Emergency” that followed) its thematic focus is relatively small. Tan treats the sweep of Malaya’s military struggles as more of a backdrop than the cornerstone of his plot, training his focus instead on the ground-level story of Yun Ling—on the raw grief of her sister’s death, her hatred of the Japanese, and the thorny duality of her relationship with Aritomo.

In that sense, The Garden of Evening Mists is very reminiscent of Evelio Rosero’s The Armies. As Rosero used his narrator’s agony at the loss of his wife to reflect the wider damage wrought on Colombia by its conflict, so too does Tan Twan Eng seem to be speaking in terms much larger than an individual character when it comes to the enduring effects Yun Ling’s internment had upon her.

Penang, Tys / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Throughout The Garden of Evening Mists many characters remark on Yun Ling’s understandable anger towards her captors, and how her inability to move beyond that stage of grief is not only preventing her emotional wounds from healing, but is also causing her more pain the longer she dwells on it. Indeed, at the beginning of the story Tan reveals that this has already cost Yun Ling her job: as a state prosecutor, she was fired after publicly criticising the colonial British government for acting too leniently towards Japanese war criminals.

But the irony here is that Yun Ling is doomed to leave her past behind, whether she wants to or not—she suffers from aphasia, a brain condition robbing her of her memories. The other characters who urge her to let go are entirely unaware that the reason Yun Ling clings so fiercely to her past, and especially to its most traumatising scenes, is that the resulting pain is the only thing sharp enough to keep her from losing such an integral part of herself.

In an interview with bookbrowse.com, Tan described Malaysia as “very forgiving—or forgetful” when it comes to the legacy of the Japanese Occupation; he added that following the release of his debut novel The Gift of Rain, set in wartime Penang, many Malaysian readers said that they had been unaware of story’s historical events prior to reading it.

(In an interesting side-note, Tan also advocates the educational preservation of Malaysia’s historic and colonial-era buildings, which he feels are too readily discarded to make space for modern developments like the iconic Petronas Towers.)

It’s not hard, then, to imagine that The Garden of Evening Mists was written in response to this. Through Yun Ling and the characters surrounding her, Tan calls for a balance between the pain of remembrance and the dangers of being all too hasty to forget; a balance that allows Malaysia to look to its future without disregarding the lessons of its past. For whilst the horrors of the Japanese Occupation are inevitably hard to hold on to, the alternative—losing those memories forever—would be far, far worse.

Petronas Towers, McKay Savage / CC-BY-2.0

The next stop on my journey takes me northwards to Japan itself, and the setting of Snow Country by 1968 Nobel Prize-winner Yasunari Kawabata.

Booktrotting Log: Oceania

Another continent, another stage of my Booktrotting journey completed. Compared with the previous leg in Latin America, this literary trip across the island nations of Oceania has felt all too brief, having only three stops along the way—and yet those stops could hardly have been more diverse, beginning in self-imposed exile on Kiribati, moving through to New Zealand’s 19th century gold rush, and ending with a twisted coming-of-age story on the Australian coast.

Carte de L’Océanie, J.G. Barbie du Bocage, 1852

I always knew I would struggle to find a wide spread of literature from this part of the world, and so all things considered I’m glad I managed to read what I did. But of course, it’s not all about quantity: what’s more important is how well the few books I did choose fit with my Booktrotting goal of filling in some of those blank edges on my world map.

I mentioned before how J. Maarten Troost’s The Sex Lives of Cannibals was an especially good find in this regard, given how comprehensive his account was of Kiribati’s history, geography and social minutiae, and how Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries likewise introduced me to an entire period of New Zealand’s past about which I previously knew nothing.

Even Tim Winton’s Breath, which I didn’t much enjoy as a novel, was immense fun to explore as a window onto Australian adolescence and its relationship with masculinity.

Maris Pacifici, Abraham Ortelius, 1589

Fortunately, even with a smaller set of books to work from, it was still easy to notice several common themes emerging as I read my way across Oceania, just as it was in Latin America.

One of the first themes I noticed (largely because of its striking contrast to the violence encountered from Jamaica through to Argentina) was openness. Whether it was Troost in Kiribati, Walter Moody in New Zealand or Pikelet’s Kent-born family in Australia, the narrators of each of these novels were by strange coincidence connected by their origins overseas, and by the way that seemingly didn’t matter beyond providing a little backstory. Perhaps I’m just looking at this with a little too much zeitgeist, but I couldn’t help wondering that if these books were written by British authors, how many pages would be dedicated to the simple fact that the characters came from Somewhere Else?

It’s interesting to consider the role Oceania’s geography might play in this. In the British Isles, spurning the company of strangers is something of a luxury, packed in as tight as we are to our neighbours both domestic and across the Channel.

But in the countries of Oceania—especially in the vast, open spaces of Australia—that same luxury doesn’t really exist. I’d always heard friends and family in Australia and New Zealand say that it’s a much friendlier world down in the South Pacific, but I’d never thought until now how that might stem from a sense of international loneliness, cut off from the rest of the world as these countries are by the bounds of the Indian and Pacific Oceans—alone, if you will, at what once really was the edge of the world.

Australasia, John Pinkerton, 1818

From Australia my Booktrotting journey now heads across the South China Sea to continue on through Asia, working from Malaysia in the east around to Turkey in the west. But although I’m moving on from Oceania, I am determined to discover more authors and books from this region, starting with Australia’s Kate Grenville and Miles Franklin, as well as Eleanor Catton’s much-lauded first novel The Rehearsal.

March in Books: 1984; Everything Ravaged; When the Women Come Out to Dance

I didn’t get an awful lot read in February, what with working through Eleanor Catton’s mammoth The Luminaries for my Booktrotting project. But this month I’ve been back on it—and apparently jumping back in at the very deep end, with my reading list taking a sharp right turn into some very bleak waters. So bleak, in fact, that I had to take these books out into the spring sunshine to make up for it…

1984, George OrwellYes, I know, who isn’t reading George Orwell at the moment? But 1984 has been loitering on my bookcase for a long, long time now, and I figured jumping on the social commentary bandwagon was as good a way as any of finally ticking this off the “must-read” list.

Although now that I’ve finally got round to it, I must admit I found 1984 to be a little…dry. As a concept and a socio-political essay the ideas it conveys are really something else, but as a novel I found its many discourses too distracting and its plot too pedestrian to get into. Perhaps one day I’ll return to 1984 and discover what it is I’ve missed this first time around—but for now, I think I’ll hand my copy on to someone who’ll enjoy it more.


Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Wells Tower

Continuing on with the air of desolate gloom established by 1984, this debut collection of short stories by Wells Tower read about as lightly as its title suggests. It’s a heavy brew of divorce, poverty, child abuse and more, acted out by a cast of invariably wretched characters and to a soundtrack of bitter fatalism—looking back, Everything Ravaged seems to be a pretty apt description for how I felt come the end.

But it’s also an exceptionally well-crafted set of stories. Whilst the raw subject matter might not be “enjoyable” in the typical sense of the word, the way in which Tower presents it is certainly easy to admire—particularly his hallmark oily black humour, which lingers at the end of each story like the afterburn of vomiting up bad whisky. If you like your literature grim and sardonic (like Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, for example) you could do worse than checking out Wells Tower.


When the Women Come Out to Dance, Elmore Leonard

On the face of it, this set of two novellas and seven short stories by the venerable Elmore Leonard doesn’t quite fit tonally in a lineup with 1984 and Everything Ravaged. Where Wells Tower dived into his seedy and debased world right from the start, Leonard begins softly, with human interest stories of infirmity and lost glory days.

But from that foundation, Leonard builds When the Women into an arguably much more penetrating portrait of modern America than Tower is able to. It feels eerily natural when the restless malcontent of the opening stories slides into the tales of violence and racial tension that fill the second half. Read in 2017, that transition becomes a striking image of the path down which American disaffection is so easily led—made all the more poignant by Leonard’s tone, which handles the worst of his characters not with grit or twisted humour, but with a powerless frustration, a resignation that things are what they are and will continue to be. Sure, it might be easy these days to reach for the Orwells, Atwoods and Huxleys, but don’t overlook Elmore Leonard if you want your reading with a side of social relevance.

Booktrotting in Australia: Breath

After departing 19th century New Zealand, my Booktrotting tour comes to the final stop on its Oceania leg, Australia—more specifically, the southwest coast of Tim Winton’s Breath.

Rising sharply from the seabed the shoal at Old Smoky was like a sunken building, windows open, teeming with blue morwongs, harlequins and boarfish. In the water column above, schools of buffalo bream churned restless circles; in the mouths of caves were lobsters the size of cattle dogs.


In a small mill town on the Australian west coast, eleven-year-old Bruce Pike grows up exhausted by the stillness of his surroundings. Together with town wild boy Loonie, he is drawn out to the booming ocean on his doorstep, and falls under the spell of the power of the waves and the mythical knot of men who surf them. Soon the boys have boards of their own—and spurred on by their own young courage and the awe of their peers, Pikelet and Loonie enter into an intoxicating world of exhilaration, immortality and fear.

I changed my mind a lot when looking for an Australian Booktrotting read; pretty much everywhere I looked turned up something that caught my eye, from The Secret River and The Narrow Road to the Deep North to anything by Miles Franklin.

But when I found Tim Winton’s “love letter to the sea” Breath, I settled on it straight away. Granted, my own stretch of the Somerset coast is a far cry from the bluffs and bomboras of Western Australia, but nevertheless I, like young Pikelet, have grown up beside and in reverence of the ocean, and I always love authors who can put that feeling into better words than I’ve ever managed. Add in Pike’s small town upbringing and love of literature, and I thought he would be a character that was achingly familiar, despite our being separated by some 9,000 miles.

Surfers at Paradise Beach, Queensland, P.J. Robertson / CC-BY-SA-2.0
And yet, in spite of the many similarities, I struggled to find much relation with Pike’s story. Obviously surfing is a major part of Breath, and, although Winton keeps the jargon to an understandable minimum, there were plenty of times when I felt too far removed from Pike’s experiences to really engage with them. In particular, Winton’s depictions of the act of surfing itself (“the huge body-rush we got flying down the line with the wind in our ears”) often lost clarity amidst the breathless adrenaline of the moment.

(I did however find an affinity with Pikelet when he confessed he could get no more than a few chapters into Moby Dick—I wondered if he, like I, had fallen for Melville’s opening poetry about the allure of the ocean, only to be turned off by all the whaling gore and narrative tangents that followed.)

Coolum Beach, Queensland, Vanderven / CC-BY-SA-2.5
But to treat Breath as just a surfing novel would be to ignore its greatest attribute. This is, above all, a coming-of-age story, a terrific (and no doubt autobiographical) snapshot of life on the cusp of manhood in 1970s Australia. It’s as much about the ocean as it is about family, masculinity, and finding one’s place in the world.

The surfing is just an extension of that. Thanks to the likes of Home and Away, it’s easy for us in Britain to see surfing as nothing more than an Aussie cliché—but to Loonie and Pikelet, under the tutelage of their hippy mentor Sando, it’s a rite of passage, their personal bridge from innocence to adulthood.

To Pike, his time on the waves is also a means of vital self-expression. During his first encounters with Sando and the other surfers, he is enthralled by the elegance of what they can do, by “how strange it was to see men do something beautiful,” and later notes how his own style of surfing has a grace and finesse that Loonie’s blind bravado lacks. He regards surfing as a kind of physical poetry, something “pointless and beautiful” that exists beyond the ideas of masculinity his traditional, agricultural hometown has to offer. It seems strange to say, given surfing’s modern day image, but for Bruce Pike—and perhaps for Tim Winton too—taking on the ocean was not about the death-defying thrill, but about finding his own interpretation of what it is to be a man.

The Twelve Apostles, Victoria, Richard Mikalsen / CC-BY-SA-3.0
From Australia my Booktrotting tour now leaves Oceania behind and begins its third leg, in Asia—beginning with The Garden of Evening Mists by Malaysia’s Tan Twan Eng.