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.


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.

New Year’s Reading List

New year, new books: now there’s a resolution I can get behind. In my opinion, there’s no finer way to kick-start the year than by getting your teeth into a new book, whether that means taking a chance on an author you’ve never heard of or knocking a few of those Christmas gifts and holiday sale bargains off the to-be-read shelf.

With all the new beginnings in the air, I also like to spend some time on the approach to spring tackling some of those books I feel I should have read already, the Steinbeck and the Nabokov and the D. H. Lawrence—those books I buy from charity shops because they look all literary, but somehow never get round to reading at the time. Last year it was the time for To the Lighthouse and Fahrenheit 451, but I think with the way things are looking for the foreseeable future, it might be a good idea to make my reading list a little more dystopian this year…

The Sellout, Paul Beatty

Last year it took me pretty much forever to get round to reading the 2015 Man Booker winner, A Brief History of Seven Killings, so this year I’m determined not to be so sluggish with Paul Beatty’s 2016 winner The Sellout. Yes, that does mean giving it quite the bump to the top of my 80-strong to-read list—but given its satirical look at race relations in the US, and with many Americans currently re-evaluating whether racism is really as bad as everyone says (yeah, it really is), there doesn’t seem to be any more fitting time than the present to make myself acquainted with The Sellout.

img_3230His Bloody Project, Graeme Macrae Burnet

Another to-be-read from last year’s Man Booker shortlist, with all the praise Graeme Macrae Burnet’s fictional murder case study has garnered I could hardly say no to giving it a spin—not to mention my love of all things Scottish wouldn’t let me pass it up if I tried.

img_32351984, George Orwell

1984 is one of those books mentioned above that caught my eye in a second-hand shop, but once brought home was consigned to wait patiently at the tail end of my to-be-reads. But, as with The Sellout, the zeitgeist is pointing me towards Orwell’s Big Brother classic; after all, we probably haven’t got much time before 1984 stops being fiction and becomes enshrined as legitimate prophecy.

img_3234The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry

One of the many books to arrive mysteriously in my stocking on Christmas morning, I fell in love with The Essex Serpent‘s thistly cover and dreamlike prologue so quickly I actually started reading it the minute I unwrapped it. Now two weeks and 150 pages in, this already looks like a pretty solid nominee for my book of the year.

img_3237Stone of Farewell, Tad Williams

I read the first volume of Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, The Dragonbone Chair, back at the end of last summer, and after taking a few detours through Middle-Earth and Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, I feel it’s about time I got back to Williams’ sword-and-sorcery epics. I’m hoping the series does something to pick up in Stone of Farewell: The Dragonbone Chair was plenty enjoyable but got a bit stale towards the end, and it’ll be a shame if Stone does nothing more than pick up where Chair fizzled out.