Saturday, January 30, 2010

Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange
by Anthony Burgess

(10: 4/50)

"'I' I said, 'have been in charge long now. We are all droogs, but somebody has to be in charge. Right? Right?'"

The entry below will openly analyse Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange and address specifically its possible themes, symbols, and intent. No plot-related spoilers will be divulged.

Well well well well well. Here we are. You may remember, my brothers and only friends, that I recently read a novel by a real horrorshow writer named Shirley Jackson. I racked my gullier thinking about that book, I did! Let me say straight off like, this veck Burgess isn't so complicated.

That's enough of that. Here's the thing about A Clockwork Orange, which Brugess himself acknowledges in the preface: It wouldn't be in the literary consciousness today if it weren't for Stanely Kurbrick. Here is the rare novel where the artistic weight of the adaptation is greater than the weight of the source.

What makes Jackson a great writer is that the intent of her novels is found in her characters. They exemplify through their thoughts and actions what she wants to communicate. What makes Burgess, at least in the case of A Clockwork Orange, a mediocre writer is that his characters-- multiple characters even-- say directly to the reader what he wants them to know. This is a book about free will; the ability to choose between good and evil, and its fundamental place at the core of humanity. It is more human to be evil with the ability to choose good than to capable of only good deeds. Or so Burgess says. We need both good and bad just to survive.

What I think is more interesting about the book, at least if you examine it in the context of its original American publication (with the final chapter edited out), it presents not only the aforementioned issue but also a portrait of humanity in which generous acts are done only in self-interest. Be it our humble narrator, his parents, the Government, or political activists. This happens because Burgess is presenting his idea of free will, and forces are consistently trying to control others within the novel. If Burgess was aware of this secondary effect, however, I have no idea.

Burgess apparently thought Alex didn't change in the American version of his novel, and the Kubrick adaptation. He felt that Alex, at chapter twenty, was the same villain that he was in chapter one. And real literature doesn't play that game, so there is chapter twenty-one, in which something ludicrous happens that severely damages the novel. It's a searching, amateur, last minute attempt to raise the novel, and Burgess makes a case for it in the preface, but what I don't think he realises, whether he intended it or not, is that Alex had already changed by chapter twenty. SPOILER: He goes from a street ruffian, desperately trying to maintaining control of others, to learning how to play the system. END SPOILER. At least, it's an argument that can be justified. The truth is Burgess didn't intend it, so it's not there as perfectly as we'd like.

I hate to say A Clockwork Orange is a bad novel, but it's thematically obvious, the events are a bit too convenient in the last section of the book, and the author's ending (Anything but the early American printings) is terrible in innumerable ways. It does have a really great narrator, and horrorshow vernacular, but otherwise the movie is far superior. It's more subtle, cuts down on the convenience, and uses the American ending. The book is ok, but really, stick with Kubrick.

Up next: The Virgin Suicides by Jeffery Eugenides

1 comment:

  1. Hm, I've never read A Clockwork Orange, only seen the movie, so I guess I'm surprised that Burgess never wrote or intended that ending. I never liked the movie much either, but chalk that up to lack of sympathy or any real feeling towards the narrator; it's still thematically interesting though, and the way the movie was presented was engaging.