Like Clockwork


After leaving my cell phone in a restaurant over the weekend, I decided to take Monday to embrace being off the grid. I slept a necessary but embarrassing  number of hours, then curled up in Barnes and Noble with a pile of teen novels. What did I read instead?


A Clockwork Orange is divided into three parts of 7 chapters each (more on that later). It’s the story of a man’s destructive youthful follies, forced state rehabilitation, and what happens next. It’s highly graphic – Stanley Kubric directed the movie for a reason. The argot (“nadsat”) the book is written in makes it a challenging read for most people, but if you speak a decent amount of Russian, as I do, it’s not difficult to get into it. In fact, the language serves to enhance the removed, brutal quality of the narration. Minus the language, it’s a pretty straight forward dystopian tale.

First off, this is not a book I can recommend to anyone in good conscience. Many disgustingly bad things happen to the protagonist, his droogs, and a number of side characters. That said, I kind of liked it. Not the first part, in which the bulk of said disgustingly bad things occur at the behest of protagonist Alex. No, it’s parts 2 and 3 that really caught my attention. The rest of the book (perhaps all of the book?) is about the struggle between free will and the will of the state- or rather, individual evil versus institutionalize evil. Alex is brainwashed in a particularly sadistic manner, then released on to the streets. Now completely averse to violence, he can’t defend himself from the many people he’s wronged in the past- or anyone else who might choose to harm him. Eventually he’s “cured” of his aversion by the same government who brainwashed him in the first place for political reasons.

Now, if we left Alex there, as the original American publication did, the story would be a fable. Kubric’s movie was based on that same fable, and he famously referred to the original last chapter as “trash”. Burgess, the author, disagreed. In the introduction to the full (1983?) American edition, he claimed that the book was incomplete without the last chapter. The controversial final entry shows an Alex growing slowly bored with his life of destruction and gradually realizing that being an adult, being a human being, means creation rather than destruction. (Orthodox reference- to be fully human is to be in the image of God, who is the Creator.) He expresses a desire to find a wife, have  child, while stating fatalistically that there is no way to break the cycle of senseless violence. In fact, he appears to believe that having a child will perpetuate it instead (perpetuation of sin? original sin?).

Burgess claims that the character growth in this chapter gives the story the complexity required of a novel. He also claims that he structured the novel to have 21 chapters- 21 being the age of maturity, as determined by the state. So without the 21st chapter, we leave Alex in a state of perpetual immaturity (in addition to remaining pure evil).

I personally value the novel format over the better known fable. Preferring the idea that no human is pure evil, and that people exist in a constant state of flux, I found the denouement necessary to a truthful novel. I also disagree with the criticism that it’s untrue to the character we met in the first 20 chapters. Even with the state deprogramming, is it not possible that the violent films Alex was forced to watch for endless hours may have had some impact on his character? Having experienced some of the extremes of earthly, sensual pleasures, might he not now desire more?

Burgess professed his overall dissatisfaction with Clockwork. He openly states in the introduction (in the book, not my now smashed kindle edition) that he considers his other works superior, and (most interestingly) if most people misunderstand the novel and film as a glorification of sex and violence, he should not have written it to begin with. (Hmm…) Here Burgess unwittingly parallels Clockwork‘s analysis of censorship and state sponsored values. Should the book exist if people will misunderstand it? Should the author have the right to “take back” his work after it’s been published- perhaps refuse future publishing rights?

Certainly the few clips I’ve watched of the film on were disturbing- but not half as disturbing as the reactions of viewers in the comments section. Glorification of violence is alive and well in that sector.

(By the way, I don’t plan to ever watch the film in its entirety. As a matter of personal preference, and for the sake of my spiritual life, I try not to watch films with excessive violence. In action movies with clearly fake explosions and extended chases, I get bored fast. With more realistically filmed -and sometimes not so realistically filmed- sequences, I get really upset. For the sake of comparison (and a little bit of morbid fascination- I watched the trailer, the intro, and parts of a few key sequences online. So take the following with that in mind.)

Another question- film making quality aside, can a story or concept be better for you, be better understood in book form than film? Burgess pointed out that many people preferred the film because the book’s narration was so difficult to comprehend. I found that the fascinating rhythm of the text was half the reward. For those of you that have seen it, does the film lose that rhythm? I also didn’t love the constant focus (literal and metaphoric) on Alex and the droogs- in the book they were one gang of many, while in the film it seemed as if they were THE gang. Lost some of the meaning and some of the significance of Alex being singled out at the end.

I don’t think I’ve been this intellectually excited about a book since The Woman in Black, another horrorshow I couldn’t recommend to anyone in good conscience.  Perhaps it’s the half-great literature, half-completely appalling aspect that makes it so fascinating.

I’m afraid I can’t leave you with any fabulous conclusions- just fragments and questions. At least it’s in the spirit of the novel.


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