'What's it going to be then, eh?'

So begins Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, a disturbing look at the joy of the knife, penal reform, and aimless adolescent passions. We discussed the book for Pharos Book Club on Saturday in the screening room at the Cat's Meow in Kelowna, a sort of antithesis of the Korova milk bar being named for a cat not for milk, and being decked out in black with groovy accents rather than white.

Burgess arrests you immediately in his opening pages vividly describing the wanton ultraviolence perpetrated by the London youth of a not-too-distant future. And he relates the story as a memoir composed by Alexander--the most vicious of his small crew--in the language of Nadsat, a Slav-ified pidgin English with hints of rhyming slang thrown in. Burgess himself was an accomplished linguist and polyglot. Here's a taste, more than a mouthful, a passage describing some poor chelloveck's trip after imbibing 'a demi-litre of white [...] with a dollop of synthemesc', or similar milk-plus concoction:
The chelloveck sitting next to me [...] was well away with his glazzies glazed and sort of burbling slovos like ‘Aristotle wishy washy works outing cyclamen get forficu­late smartish’. He was in the land all right, well away, in orbit, and I knew what it was like, having tried it like everybody else had done, but at this time I’d got to think­ing it was a cowardly sort of a veshch, O my brothers. You’d lay there after you’d drunk the old moloko and then you got the messel that everything all round you was sort of in the past. You could viddy it all right, all of it, very clear—tables, the stereo, the lights, the sharps and the malchicks—but it was like some vesbch that used to be there but was not there not no more.
Each of the novel's three parts begins with the same phrase--'What's it going to be then, eh?'--communicating the ennui of the protagonist and youth in general. The book may have been inspired by an attack on Burgess and his wife, Lynne, in 1944, the book perhaps serving as a catharsis for the attack, and subsequent miscarriage and death his wife suffered.

Burgess becomes an apologist for the assailants, at least in his original version. Blake Morrison, in his introduction to the Penguin edition pictured above, describes the expurgated text as perhaps the only instance in which an artist was forced to alter his work to make it more pessimistic for an American audience. Burgess' original included a seventh and final chapter in Part Three; in the version I read for book club, I was blissfully unaware of this chapter, an epilogue that softens the despair of the American edition.

After Alex is finally captured during an ultimately fatal attack on a starry ptitsa, he is incarcerated in an unbearably overcrowded prison. To commute his sentence, he elects (a morally significant detail) to undergo Ludovico's treatment, a Pavlovian conditioning program in the same vein as Brave New World's hypnopaedia and 1984's Room 101. The procedure, horrifyingly and faithfully rendered in Kubrick's film adaptation, conditions its subject to associate the nausea and revulsion induced by an injected drug with the violent activity simultaneously portrayed on-screen in front of him. The subject is rendered harmless as his desire to halt his stomach-churning trumps his underlying desire to tolchock some starry veck, or get up to a little in-out-in-out with a horrorshow sharp.

Alex is released from prison and left to his own devices. He is the poster boy for the state, an embodiment of the solution to problems of overcrowded prisons and unsafe streets. Alex not only becomes a tool of the ruling rightist totalitarians, but the underground leftists, including the husband of one of his victims. He is induced by them to attempt suicide, deprogrammed, restored to his violent tendencies, and the American text ends with Alex declaring that he is cured.

Chapter 7, however, shows a subdued Alex, blunted as he attains the ripe age of 18. He has a paternal wistfulness as he chides his droogs and opts out of the night's fun. He muses on a future in which his son will be just as deaf to reason, and destined repeat the same folly of Alex's youth--perhaps even killing someone--and so on through the generations.

The seventh chapter transforms the book from a political diatribe, lashing out at leftists and rightists who treat their citizens as mere instruments of the State, to a coming of age story which explains and excuses violent teen passions as inevitable growing pains.

We had another wide-ranging discussion that exceeded our usual three-hour alotment. We observed the similarities between this book and two other dystopic visions we've encountered in book club: the aforementioned Brave New World and 1984. One of us anticipated that the story's vivid violence would be too much for her emotional constitution to bear, so she chose not to read the story but instead came for the discussion. We talked about the validity of Alex's choice to be programmed when the alternative was continued imprisonment, and about the concept of a 'Decision Tree': if Alex's decisions to that point were freely made, then he is ultimately responsible for the limited choices available to him and the choice is thus valid. We talked about parenting, corporate propaganda, public education, organized religion and the fuzzy distinction between programming and socializing youth.

A great book with a fresh voice and important things to say forty years after it was written, A Clockwork Orange however doesn't always hit the mark. The Slavic language influence would probably be more aptly replaced with a South Asian influence in the UK or Hispanic one in the US. I sometimes found myself trying to imagine just such a Hindglish or Spanglish bastard language. Burgess' dismissal of the hooligans' tendencies as a mere hormone-fueled phase misses the danger of true sociopaths who never grow up and demonstrate robust recidivism. The novel is nevertheless provocative, clever, direct, and succinct, and a winner in my books.

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