Number sixty-five of the 100 greatest novels has been my favorite book since high school. Recommended to me by the school librarian, I couldn’t even start to guess how many times I’ve read it since then. I’ve gone through two copies of the paperback and have read it on my Kindle multiple times. With as many times as I’ve read it, I’ve never sat down and really tried to explain what makes this book so enjoyable for me and why I love to read it over and over. I’ve been looking forward to getting to it on this list for this exact reason. So here’s my paltry attempt to put my thoughts into words:
I want to look at the novel two ways. First, why I think it’s a great work of art. Second, why I like it so much. Let’s start with the novel as great art. The first thing you notice when you start reading the novel is the language. Mostly that you can’t understand what you’re reading, almost at all. Let me explain. A Clockwork Orange is written in “Nadsat,” a language Anthony Burgess created for this novel. Nadsat is a Russified English used by teenagers in the world created for Clockwork. Nadsat uses a combination of Russian words, English words, made-up words, a few German words, words borrowed from Cockney rhyming slang, and childish English terms like eggiweg for “egg.” I know, that’s a lot to take in. At first it’s fairly off-putting but while reading, you start to learn what most of the words mean using context clues and process of elimination. Honestly, I can’t remember how difficult it was for me to read the first time since I’ve read it so many times. Sorry…
Once you get past the language, the novel gets into the storyline fairly quickly. Following the main character, Alex, and his droogs (friends), the story doesn’t take long to get into the drugs, alcohol, and violence that the novel (and movie) is famous for. Alex and his droogs are a gang of teenagers that go around stealing cars, beating up defenseless citizens, and breaking into houses to rape and pillage. Little is left to the imagination in this novel. It shows teenage-driven violence at it’s most horrible form. Ultimately, Alex is arrested for certain crimes. He’s put in jail or as he calls it, Staja (State jail). While in prison, he’s selected to take part in a new experiment in behavior modification. While drugging Alex, they force him to watch violent films. His body learns to associate his sickness with the violence to the point that any thought of violence will make him want to be sick. His only option is to do the exact opposite, go out of his way to be nice, to counteract the sick feelings. Using a chaplain in the jail and later some politicians that are fighting against the current government, the novel starts questioning some philosophical ideas. What is it to be good? Evil? Where does freewill come in? Is it better to choose to be evil or to have choice taken from you and be “good?”
Really, I don’t want to spoil to much of the novel for you but the story ultimately has a very satisfying ending. And when I say the story I mean specifically the novel. If you have any desire to watch the movie, go ahead. But be warned that the movie ends a chapter earlier than the novel. The movie leaves out the whole denouement of the story. The movie doesn’t have the growth of the character, the reason for the whole novel. If you are interested in reading the novel, make sure you purchase a copy with Anthony Burgess’s introduction titled “A Clockwork Orange Resucked.” He talks about why he hates this novel being his most popular, why the movie ends early and how he feels about it, and the importance of different parts of the novel. The intro is almost as good of a read as the whole novel.
Now, quickly, let me try to explain why I love this novel so much, this novel that has so many horrible events. First, this was the first novel I read that really pushed the boundaries of language. High school me didn’t know it was allowed to break so many rules while writing a novel. This book opened up a whole new world of literature for me. Not only language-breaking literature but also stories about dystopian future societies. Way before Hunger Games and Divergent, there was A Clockwork Orange, A Brave New World, 1984, etc. And I quickly read all of these. The other thing that really grabbed me about this novel was the use of music. I later learned that Anthony Burgess was a composer and music plays a large role in all of his novels but I loved how he works Alex’s love of classical music into the story. The dichotomy of this teenager that loves to destroy, rape, and steal also loves to lay in his bed and listen to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is incredible. And it’s not really a dichotomy for Alex, it’s his same desires being played out in two different mediums. And it’s powerful to see.
Hopefully that came across coherently. Until next time!