Thursday, December 09, 2010

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess is a reread, of sorts.  I read this novel in my adolescence but, apparently, back then the American version was missing the last chapter of the novel so, in fact, I never read the entire novel.  Now the controversial, or so the cover calls it, final chapter is back where it belongs and I have read the entire novel, all 21 chapters of it.

Because I wasn’t expecting a huge surprise as a result of one added chapter, I read the introduction and was turned off by the author’s tone.  He comes off as arrogant and condescending, perhaps deservedly so because this novel is so supremely good.  I read a lot of dystopian novels as a teenager and this one I remembered most clearly.  Chapter for chapter, only small details slipped my memory.  The brutality of the narrator’s voice and action were not more vulgar than I had remembered but, had I read this introduction then, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to read the novel at all.  He just comes off as so angry and hateful, not much unlike Alex, the anti-hero of the novel.

The novel, itself, is painfully brilliant and Burgess’ use of slang sets a tone that allows the reader some emotional distance from the events as Alex is describing them.  The acts he describes are loathsome, so extremely vicious that it is impossible to like the narrator.  The delicate balance of creating an utterly unsympathetic character while inviting the reader to continue reading is simply remarkable.  Without establishing Alex as a hateful and hate-filled character, there is no reader response to the second part of the novel, which focuses on his reeducation using aversion therapy.  Forced into civilized behavior, the reader finally feels some sympathy for Alex, disturbed by how he is manipulated into goodness.

Therein lies the novel’s brilliance.  To first compel the reader to keep reading while creating a horrific character and then shift the story in such a way as to inspire the reader to not only keep reading but to tacitly sympathize with Alex is where the power of this novel lies.

By replacing the final chapter to its rightful position, little about the novel itself is changed.  It supposedly does change things significantly but perhaps I am too jaded to take its content at face value.  I appreciate the underlying themes of free will and redemption but I find it hard to believe that anyone as clearly psychopathic, lacking any sense of social responsibility, would ever be anything more than a pawn of his society’s amorality as well as his own.

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