A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange - Anthony Burgess The American Review:

At times, I find beauty in dissonance. Take, for example, my eclectic music collection. I have my share of soothing music: new age, quiet electronica, and so forth. I have some popular mainstream music, mostly from the '80s. Some funk, some reggae, ska, a bit of trance and techno. Yes, there's the heavy metal, punk, classic rock from my youth, and even a little progressive death metal. And, amongst it all, a good dose of 20th century classical pieces by such composers as George Crumb, Arvo Part, and Krzyzstof Penderecki played by several performers, including my favorite, the renowned Kronos Quartet.

Now, I don't revel in atonal music all the time. But once in a while, I just have to “blow the tubes,” as they say, and crank up the stereo a bit. I'm careful to do this when the wife and kids aren't around. The kids can take everything but the modern classical stuff. And my wife, well, she's no metalhead, let's put it that way, but she is a fantastic piano player . . . of the more normal classical pieces and jazz.

So why? I often ask myself, do I glory, at times, in the inglorious? Well, I have no good answer, save for the need is there. To quote 15 year-old Alex, the narrator of A Clockwork Orange, “what I do I do because I like to do”.

Of course, I’m not addicted to ultra-violence like young Alex. Sure, I had my share of dalliances as a 15 year old, but rape and brutal beatings of the elderly were not on my list of things to do, much less murder. I can count on one hand the number of actual fights I was in. Still, I can relate to the devil-may-care attitude, or at least I could have related, as a teenager. So, though I don’t condone any of the heinous acts that Alex and his “droogies” (friends) participate in, I can see where the attitude comes from. I probably shouldn't say this, but while I could never find myself doing the things he does, I could, as an American teenager living in England back in the '80s, find myself feeling the way he feels. I do remember.

But now I’m all grown up (ostensibly). I’m a responsible husband and father, I hold a day job, contribute to my church and community, I vote, clean up the yard, donate to public radio, all that stuff. And maybe that’s the reason I like some dissonance in my music once in a while or, in this case, in my literature. It reminds me of a younger age. Not that I want to go back and do it over again. I don't. But occasionally I've an urge to . . . indulge myself. Thankfully, all it takes is the right music or the right book and I'm set straight again.

Whatever the cause for my itch, Burgess has scratched it with A Clockwork Orange. Possibly the most brutal “coming of age” novel I’ve read, A Clockwork Orange sets up a society and a narrator full of conflict and chaos. Alex, along with many other teenagers, rule the night in what may or may not be a socialist police state. I’m reminded more of Mobutu’s Zaire than Stalin’s Russia, in this case. The government isn’t so much in total control as it’s allowing chaos to foment in a semi-contained manner (in Mobutu's case, geographically contained to Eastern Zaire, in Burgess' case, temporally contained to the night). Kids run the streets after sunset, but only because there aren’t as many police (or "millicents") out during the night as there are during the day (according to Alex). It’s all a sort of dysfunctional dystopia that can’t make up its mind how to administer power and leaves it up to a lackadaisical police force (some of whom are ex-gang members) to abuse those who are the most disruptive to society.

The language of the novel is also dissonant. "Nadsat" or teenager talk, is a sort of creole admixture of Russian terms, Gypsy words, and an immature bit of baby-talk. At first, I found myself flipping back and forth from the text to the glossary in the back. After a chapter, though, I fell into the rhythm and found myself rather enjoying the strangeness of it all. In fact, once you've "got the rhythm," it's a little hard to let go. The voice of the novel lingers in the reader's head long after the book is closed. I found myself dreaming, at times, in nadsat.

Then there’s the narrator himself. He’s a lover of classical music, but a thug to the utmost. His two-faced approach to life leaves the reader wondering “who is the *real* Alex and is he truly capable of reform?” In the end, the answer is “no”. You can take the man out of the ghetto, but you can't take the ghetto out of the man..

The British Review:

. . . Then there's the narrator himself. He's a lover of classical music, but a thug to the utmost. His two-faced approach to life leaves the reader wondering “who is the *real* Alex and is he truly capable of reform?” In the end, the answer is that in time, maturity, the mere plodding march of chronology, wears down the deadly inner-demons that even brainwashing cannot purge. There is a certain inevitability to the track of life, an inescapable softening that cannot be averted.

The Universal Review:

In the end, Burgess posits the existentialist notion that change will impose its will when it wills it. Life itself says “what I do I do because I like to do”. Fight against it, if you want, or give in. Life doesn't much care. But does that mean you shouldn't?

Coda:

And here I come full-circle. Internal dissonance is a part of me. That doesn't mean I embrace it all of the time. But I don't entirely shut it out, either. One might say I flip-flop between the American and the British ending. So, for me, reading A Clockwork Orange was more than just a reading. It was an exploration of what it means to be me, both the beautiful and the ugly, the sacred and the sinister, the tame and the wild. I can't say whether I like the American ending or the British ending better, though I'm glad I read them both. They are two sides of the same coin, a coin that, for me, continually flips through my psyche, flashing through the years, never really landing: heads or tails?