Books, Thoughts

Off the Shelf: A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork OrangeA Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m torn about rating this book, mostly because the novel raises more questions for me rather than tying up the narrative loose ends. First, I enjoy the nadsat dialect & how it reflects the chaos of Alex’s perspective. Just when the reader thinks they’ve figured out a word, Alex uses it in a slightly different context, leaving one with the feeling that you almost understand what he’s saying, but not quite. And I think Burgess portrays a teenager’s feelings of invincibility & of the world revolving around him accurately.

But what doesn’t work for me are the last two chapters. Alex’s journey from “invincible” sociopathic thug to vulnerable, fear-driven citizen is a compelling one. His attempted suicide is the crescendo of the book. The last two chapters are merely functional: Alex is deprogrammed, Alex learns to make his own moral decisions. To me, there isn’t as much emotion invested in these two chapters as there are in the preceding ones. I think this is because most of the novel is about Alex’s self-involvement and since the only thing he learns at the end of the book is simply that he can’t make others do what he wants, the ending doesn’t match the emotional tension of the book. Alex is still wrapped up in himself & his desires.

In Burgess’s introduction to this edition, he mentions that he wrote a “happy ending” because his intent was “Kennedyean” and endorsed social progress. But the main question I came away with after reading this book is can one write a novel about social progress when your protagonist has little emotional affect & no empathy for others? Alex gives up his violent life because it doesn’t satisfy him anymore, not because he suddenly realizes that the people he’s hurting have any real value. Alex dreams about getting married, having a kid & growing old just because that’s what his parents & his former close friend did. These future dreams of his feel as artificial as the good behavior that the state tried to impose on him. The interesting thing, for me, is reading A Clockwork Orange in the shadow of Jim Thompson’s books. CO could function as a prequel to novels like The Killer Inside Me, where the main character is a sociopath functioning as a normal citizen in order to pass and get away with his own selfish desires. That seems like a much more fitting ending than the domesticity Burgess tries to go back to.

But then, as an American who (in Burgess’s words) is determined to think the worst of people, you’d expect me to say that, wouldn’t you?

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