Wow, I was certainly not expecting what I have received from this book at all. I was completed captivated by the writing style and plot of this novel and I couldn’t put it down once I picked it up. I think I got through it in about 48 hours – and that’s rounding up!
When I found out that Anthony Burgess, the author of this novel, was born in Manchester (England) and even went to Manchester University I was immediately praying that I would love this book and it probably biased me to liking it. Manchester has a special place in my heart, but don’t let my bias fool you, this book has been included on Time magazine’s list of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923, and it was named by Modern Library and its readers as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. So not to worry, it’s not just me.
I didn’t know much about the book itself, sort of half guessing it to be of dystopian nature which was an accurate assumption, but I don’t think I was ready for the black satirical humour that encompassed it along with all the other elements of this novel.
The book follows a teenager named Alex and his little gang of friends as they commit various crimes in near dystopian England. Alex is a barbarous and cruel anti-hero who is cleverly complimented with an affinity for classical music. Before we get into the classical music, I’d just like to address what I mean about Alex being a cruel teen. You can’t really phantom the sheer brutality that Alex and his gang of friends commit throughout the novel to innocent victims, starting with chapter 1. Within the first 12 pages of the novel, the gang spot an old man carrying books from the library which they attack as follows:
“’You naughty old veck, you,’ I said, and then we began to filly about with him. Pete held his rookers and Georgie sort of hooked his rot wide open for him and Dim yanked out his false zoobies, upper and lower. He threw these down on the pavement and then I treated them to the old boot-crush, though they were hard bastards like, being made of some new horrorshow plastic stuff.” (12)
There are further horrors that appear in that paragraph which I am going to omit for everyone’s safety and also because I don’t want to get reported for violent language via WordPress. Burgess doesn’t shy away from really depicting how addicted these boys are to committing violent acts, and after the attack on the old man Alex proceeds to drug and rape 2 younger girls later on in the book, and terrorize a young couple including raping and murdering their wife. Burgess does such an incredible job of telling the story of Alex and his gang, that I couldn’t turn away.
For a while after reading the book, I thought there was something seriously wrong with me – why did I love reading about all this violence, teenage angst and brutality?! What I realized is that, but by flipping each page, I was desperately hoping and praying that there is a happy ending and that something will happen that will make them realize that what these boys are doing is not okay. I think a part of me wanted to believe that this boy just had a rough start at life, and that he’s going to develop into a better human being after a eureka moment (I was so naïve and hopeful, it’s like I’ve never read a dystopian novel before!).
For a while I was buying that lie and the author even hinted that there might be a solution for Alex and his affinity to violence. When he gets jailed in Part 2 of the novel an opportunity presents itself to Alex, or more specifically an experiment. In order to have this sentenced terminated he would take part in an experiment that would make him averse to violence, and reform him. The experiment itself was pretty brutal, as Alex was injected with nausea-inducing drugs while watching graphically violent films, which eventually conditioned him to become severely ill at the mere thought of violence. Unfortunately, an unintended consequence of this experiment is that Alex is no longer able to enjoy his beloved classical music as before, because they played it as background music during his sessions. But it does appear to work:
“ ‘But,’ I said, ‘I don’t understand. I don’t understand about feeling sick like I did. I never used to feel sick before…’
‘What is happening to you now is what should happen to any normal healthy human organism contemplating the actions of the forces of evil, the workings of the principle of destruction. You are being made sane, you are being made healthy.’” (119)
Afterward, he’s released from jail but he struggles to fit into regular life. He’s lost the only love in the world, classical music, and due to his past his family and friends don’t fully trust him and abandon him. Despite having the right behavior, he’s an outcast with no purpose in life.
The moral questions that the novel raises are incredibly interesting – like the freedom to choose between good and evil. When Alex had the freedom to choose his own actions, it lead him to intervene and destroy the lives the innocent other people. Yet, I’m not convinced that it was morally right for the government to program and engineer a desired choice of behavior for Alex, by exposing him to their experiments, as that didn’t help him either.
I think that this book is amazingly simple, yet simultaneously complex. The novel is formed of three very obvious parts: the first is when we meet Alex and exposed to his criminal and hooligan behavior, part two is his being reformed by the government, and the third is when he has to live his new life as a non-violent man. There is a strange satisfaction behind having such a clear split of the book, and makes it really easy to go back and read through the parts or sections that were of interest to compare and contrast the main characters development (or perhaps lack there of!).
The book also has a layer of complexity, as the author created his own language that the characters use throughout the book. I’m not going to lie, it was a bit of a pain to get used to the Nadsat words for the first few chapters as was constantly flipping to the index to learn this new vocabulary. Having said this, there is a lot of repetition and after the initial steep learning curve, it does make the book feel more special. It also cool to learn that Burgess was a linguistic and that he was able to connect with that knowledge on a different level with the creation of the Russian influenced English language. You don’t get to see that very often!
If you can’t tell already, I am completely taken with this book and actually can’t wait to read it all again as I find the questions of morality and the psychological reflection and development of Alex extremely fascinating. With no hesitancy, I am happy to profess that this has now become one of my top 10 books of all time! So what are you waiting for, go out and read it!
Q: Have you come across a book that really resonated with you in the last 6 months? What was it, and what did you enjoy most about it?