book review: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

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A CLOCKWORK ORANGE by Anthony Burgess
★★★★★
originally published in 1962

I’m seeing the play adaptation of A Clockwork Orange off Broadway in a couple of weeks, so I thought it would be a good idea to read the book first. I read one paragraph and thought ‘oh god, what am I getting myself into?’ before deciding to soldier on anyway. Now, since I’m guessing this has been the experience of just about everyone who has ever read the first paragraph of A Clockwork Orange only to put it down after that, my advice is: push through it. By the second chapter it gets easier, and by the fourth or fifth you’re practically fluent in nadsat.

But let’s back up. The most notable thing about A Clockwork Orange is that it’s written in Anthony Burgess’s invented argot, ‘nadsat,’ which draws on Cockney, Malay, and Russian. You’re thrown into this hybrid language immediately without any explanation, and it’s a little disorienting, which I think was the effect that Burgess was going for. But it works, beautifully. It draws the reader into Alex’s world, and somehow serves to desensitize from the brutal violence that Alex and his gang inflict on others. The relief you feel at being able to understand the language washes over you in stark opposition to the horrors that the nadsat is masking, and it’s a uniquely unsettling experience. I was completely drawn in by the effect that Burgess created here.

Thematically, this book is absolutely fascinating. Burgess constructs a vaguely futuristic totalitarian state that draws on elements of both communism and capitalism, which makes sense given the social climate that Burgess was writing in, in 1960s Britain. This book raises a lot of questions about humanity, free will, and the symbiotic relationship of the state and the individual. What value is there in free will if an individual doesn’t choose to be good? Is it better to choose to be evil, or to be forced to be good? What’s so striking about A Clockwork Orange is that we don’t have a hero worth rooting for in this dystopian society, but it’s still a powerful commentary on governmental injustice and youth violence. I was very moved by Alex’s story, and it’s a testament to Burgess’s skill that he was able to evoke pity for this character who should by all accounts be irrevocably loathsome.

I really enjoyed reading this, as much as you can ‘enjoy’ a brutally violent book. I don’t recommend this lightly, but if you can handle this kind of dark fiction, reading this book is a surprisingly rewarding experience.