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Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Clockwork Orange

This novel is a malenky bit bezoomny, if you ask me, O my brothers.

Sorry, I felt that was necessary. So much of the reader’s enjoyment of A Clockwork Orange will depend upon whether or not they mind Anthony Burgess’s invented language of nadsat, a patois equal parts Cockney rhyming slang and Russian. As for the actual content behind those words, well…it brings up some interesting questions before, depending on the version you read, taking a firm position on the incontrovertible darkness of the human soul, or totally selling out the story in favor of a silly and insulting moral about the possibility for people to change.

You see, there are two versions of A Clockwork Orange. One of them is longer than the other by exactly one chapter, the last. This last chapter was omitted from the initial American edition at the insistence of a New York publisher. (Incidentally, the Stanley Kubrick film uses the American text.) Burgess insisted that later editions publish his full manuscript, which is the version I read.

For the first twenty chapters (which comprise the original American edition) A Clockwork Orange tells the story of an ulta-violent young malchick named Alex who, along with his droogs Pete, Georgie, and Dim, terrorizes his neighborhood at night. The foursome rob, steal, assault and even rape without as much as a second thought. Burgess is unsparing in his depiction of these crimes and of Alex’s glee in partaking in them. They are fairly disturbing to read.

Eventually, an argument with his droogs and an ill-fated robbery attempt lead to Alex’s incarceration. Further episodes of violence lead Alex to become part of an experiment in behavioral control. This has some unintended consequences.

The brilliant part of these twenty chapters is the way in which Burgess subtly interweaves the apparent totalitarian Socialist regime that has taken over Great Britain. In this light A Clockwork Orange becomes a tale about the strength of individualism and its resistance to oppression and compulsion. It’s an argument made all the stronger by being argued through very nearly the worst possible example. Alex is a truly contemptible person, but the reader still feels revulsion at the state’s attempts to thwart his true nature. In that way it reminded me of The Power and the Glory, wherein Graham Greene argues for Catholicism through a fallen drunk known as the Whiskey Priest.

It’s hard to describe the differences between the two versions of the novel without spoiling the ending(s). Suffice to say that I greatly preferred the one without the last chapter, since it seemed so much truer to the rest of the novel, with its dark, portentous concluding words. The author’s last chapter is an absurd redemption story which seems to sweep Alex’s horrific misdeeds under the rug. It’s a curious decision to say the least.

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from reading A Clockwork Orange is that you shouldn’t assume that editors are idiots. The guy who decided to cut the last chapter from this novel is a frickin’ genius.

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