fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsA Clockwork Orange by Anthony BurgessA Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

Not everyone may be a fan of Anthony BurgessA Clockwork Orange, but we all know of it thanks to the iconic film by Stanley Kubrick. The image of juvenile delinquent Alex and his droogs with their frighteningly ruthless smiles, black hats, suspenders, and kicking boots as they terrorize helpless citizens while singing “Singin’ in the Rain” in a dystopian near-future London is impossible to forget.

The story is simple: Alex’s little gang goes on a horrifying crime spree until he is caught, put into prison, but is offered a new experimental therapy, the fictional Ludovico technique, which involves forcing the subject to watch violent imagery for extended periods while administering drugs that induce nausea. At the end of this treatment, little Alex cannot even think violent thoughts without being crippled with pain and nausea, with the unintended side effect that he also gets the same reaction to classical music, including his favorite composer, Ludwig van Beethoven. He has been reduced to “a clockwork orange: organic on the outside, mechanical on the inside.”

When he is released back into society, he becomes a victim of his former mates and is beaten. He then encounters one of his former crime victims, who unknowingly takes him in out of kindness, hoping to use him as a poster child against the inhumane policies of the current government. When his lets slip his identity, his benefactors turn against him.

The film was shocking and brilliant when it first hit theatres in 1971, polarizing in its questions of how far we can go in punishing violent and unrepentant criminals, and courageous in refusing to provide any easy answers. I saw it in high school and was both horrified and fascinated by it. Could crime in England ever get this brazen? Could society ever become this degenerate? And what is the appropriate punishment for incorrigible hooligans? Just putting them behind bars at taxpayer expense, so they can mingle with other criminals and become more hardened?

That’s how it often seems like today in the United States, where the criminal justice system has become a massive industry, and we have some of the highest incarceration rates in the world. Not to mention that African-Americans make up 40% of prison populations despite only accounting for 13% of the US population (2010 US Census figures), which is devastating to those communities. There’s no question that the US (and other countries) have serious and intractable crime problems, and that the prison system doesn’t work in its current form.

But what about the Ludovico technique? In the book it achieved a complete reversal in behavior from the glee that Alex previously felt from beating, raping, and pillaging. Would we really want to take that route to solve our crime problems, or is the punishment worse than the crime? That’s a question we would all answer differently, though we would likely agree the current arrangement is not working. I greatly appreciate the book for raising such questions by taking various solutions to the extremes, something that dystopian literature is ideally suited for.

I always wanted to read the book but never got around to it until I picked up the Audible version narrated by English actor Tom Hollander, which is incredible to listen to. It turns out to be the 50th anniversary edition, and contains a wealth of extras, including a very good introduction by Anthony Burgess (in which he admits that he never expected this book to have such staying power, and wishes his other books got even a fraction of the attention), the actual story, and most interestingly, the missing final chapter that was removed from the US edition.

Readers, if you want to see spoilers for this final chapter and the ending of the novel, highlight the following invisible text: This chapter shows Alex encountering his former droogs and they have given up their criminal youths and integrated with society. Alex himself also chooses to leave his violent youthful past and grow up. Apparently this chapter was removed from the American edition because the publisher thought that American audiences were tougher and would prefer a pessimistic ending that features Alex as an unrepentant monster ready to return to his monstrous ways. The Stanley Kubrick film also uses the American version’s ending, and to my mind this was the right choice, because the story carries greater impact if Alex’s remains uncured, since we then have to think what other solutions are needed. [end spoiler]

Tom Hollander does a bang-up job delivering the incredible Nadsat slang that Alex uses to tell his story. It is a mix of Slavic words (mainly Russian), English, and Cockney rhyming slang. This might have been a barrier to readers of the novel, as they had to frequently flip to the glossary to make sense of terms like: bezoomny, bitva, chepooka, cutter, devotchka, droog, goober, grahzny, horrowshow, jeezny, krovvy, lewdies, litso, malchick, malenky, oddy knocky, pretty polly, ptitsa, rooker, rot, rozz, sharries, shoomny, skorry, sloshy, smeck, starry, tolchock, veck, veshch, viddy, yarbles, etc.

But when listening to Hollander’s brilliant narration, you can easily figure out what these words mean from context and they are a joy to listen to. This book was meant to be read aloud, with all the sinister charm, callousness, and street-wise perspective of Alex. I can’t imagine a better reader for this material, but you actually get the first few chapters at the end of the main book read by Burgess himself to compare. They are both brilliant and I would listen to this book again anytime. A true masterpiece.