Made famous by Kubrick's adaptation of the book to film, A Clockwork Orange still stands today as one of Anthony Burgess' most famous pieces of work. The story of a young man's growth from boy to manhood, the book has been found in two editions throughout its life. The first edition is that which was released in Europe in 1962. This, the original, contained 21 chapters - one chapter each for the number of years that most modern cultures consider the age of "manhood." When it was brought into America not long thereafter, however, the original manuscript was cut - so that only 20 chapters made it over. This was done by the publisher because they felt that the American public didn't require their villains to ever become "reformed," or to change. America, the publisher believed, wanted a man to hate and not one to associate with.
This they did get in the personage of Alex, a fifteen year old hoodlum who is the narrator of the tale. Unfortunately, however, the cut of the final chapter means that the story, as far as Burgess and others (myself included) are concerned, did not properly move to completion. The idea that Burgess was trying to get across was snipped before it blossomed. And, for some unknown reason, Kubrick used the American 20-chapter version of A Clockwork Orange when he created the film - even though the film was made in England where the full version was readily available. Then, in 1986, Norton & Company put out the full version with the final chapter. In this version is a wonderful prelude to the story by Burgess himself, explaining in no uncertain terms various views of his on this, his greatest (and by far not to him) work to many. And mention is made strongly of the missing chapter and the Kubrick version of his story as well.
One of the primary pieces of the novel that makes it stand out is the use of an invented slang for the characters. A language based in UK English, but is a sort of teenage slang speak of the novel, it suffices to place the storyline somewhere not part of - yet still somewhere close - to our own universe. Things are only slightly different, but just enough so that its distanced just a bit. The slang is heavy and it will take a chapter or two to fall into it where it becomes commonplace. Burgess' use of it is flawless, so that quickly it becomes second nature during your read. And for those real hard-up geek types, there are dictionaries for it available on the web - just hit your favorite search engine.
The storyline is that of three years out of the life of Alex, a rogue of his time. Drug use, sex and, strangely enough but appropriate if you stop to think about it, classical music is rampant. Violence is commonplace as Alex and his "droogs," Georgie, Dim (who was quite dim) and Pete, begin the story in The Korova Milkbar. Here they spike the milk with various "vesches," or drugs, so that you can "get a peek at the nasty or nail a bit to get you up and ready for a bit of the ultra-violence and in-out in-out." Alex, two nights into the story, is betrayed by his friends and left for the police at the scene of a home break-in. As the assaulted woman dies, Alex is sentenced to fifteen years. After being in the slammer for two of them he does find a way out. A mysterious experiment of the government, a reform platform known as Ludovico's Experiment, boasts to be able to turn a wanton criminal into a model citizen within weeks. Not caring what he gets into and only wanting out, Alex opts for the treatment.
Ludovico's Experiment, as it turns out, is a brutal method of brainwashing. Tapped with drugs and forced to watch violent films, even so far as having his eyelids snapped open so he couldn't close his eyes to miss a moment, the drugs bring on him a sickness whenever he sees the films - even though they display things he himself might have done. Things that he would enjoy watching. After more drugs, prodding and brainwashing, Alex is not only incapable of performing any sort of violent act, he gets gruesomely sick at just the mere thought of it. Hence the idea that he becomes "a clockwork orange." That is to say, incapable of making his own moral decisions and nothing more than a wind up toy given to the morals that were imposed on him - and not those of his own choice.
Much is made of this. The idea that Alex becomes something less than human and more a mechanical toy that looks like one is made clear and strong. And this is only the first main idea of the book (there are many ideas within this philosophical novel, but I will concentrate on two main ones, this being the first of these). When a man can't make a conscious choice on his own part about good and evil, kindness or badness, then is he truly a human being? Being human does, after all, include freedom of will, doesn't it?
As the story moves on and he is released from prison, Alex finds himself tortured by old friends, family and old victims alike. He can't even fight back in self protection since violence has been impaled on his brain as an illness. He is taken in by a political group with their own agenda. At every turn he is built to carry the weight of someone else's agenda - more given to the clockwork idea, a tool of society and other people. It is finally an attempted suicide that brings him to the hospital where he is fixed up - and his brain included. And he leaves the hospital to go back to his old, violent ways once again. And this is where the American version of 20 chapters ends. And this is a huge grievance indeed.
The final chapter of A Clockwork Orange finds Alex with some new "droogs," doing the usual. But he's not himself. It no longer feels as right as it should be. Running into Pete from his old crew, who is now married and living a moral life, the chance encounter turns out to be the final straw. Suddenly realizing that destruction and carnage is helluva fun and all, his thoughts turn to other things. Like creation. Like more matured pursuits of happiness. A wife, perhaps, maybe even a son. Who will repeat what he did all over again - and grow up as he did all over again. And the second idea - when young, we're not wise enough to understand what type of work would go into something we might just as easily stomp on without a care. But as years roll on and experience builds wisdom within us, most of us, or at least I shall hope so and not succumb to my usual jaded cynicism at this point, will then realize that it is worlds more fun to create something. It just takes longer, that's all.
"A Clockwork Orange" by
Published by Norton & Company, Inc.
Copyright © 1962, 1986 by Anthony Burgess