Sunday, May 3, 2009

A Clockwork Orange

Well, this didn't raise any eyebrows or get any weird remarks. I guess my co-workers just take it for granted now that I read weird books.

Well, actually, A Clockwork Orange isn't so weird, though the edition I bought does have a weird cover. This is one book you've probably heard of, and maybe you've seen the (awesome) Stanley Kubrick movie adaptation.

The book is set in the future, just when is uncertain. (Due to a model of car that is mentioned, some set it in the late 1990's.) It's suggested early on in the book that the human race now also inhabits the moon. Thankfully, the events of the story stay on Earth.

The story is told in the first person by the main character, Alex. We open with him and his "droogs" (they are a gang) drinking drugged milk, then going out to commit random acts of violence, including the rape of a woman in her own home in front of her husband.

The story then contrasts Alex's night life with his life by day: he skips school by feigning illness (this is followed with a visit from Alex's parole officer), then he goes to pick up a music album at a store, and in the process, meets two young girls who he takes home and has his way with.

The next part of the book makes an interesting point. Alex's droogs make his position in the gang feel threatened, so he gets back at them, doing a bit an act of violence to prove he is the Alpha Male of the group. This behavior is typical of mankind, though, as we always try to prove ourselves the master.

Alex then goes to an old lady's house to burgle it, when he is met by the lady. When he tries to escape her, he accidentally murders her. His droogs beat him and leave him for the police.

Alex goes to prison and stays there for two of his fourteen years. He confides in the prison chaplain, who is something of a moral compass for Alex. Rather than forcing religion on Alex (though he does call Alex a brother in J.C.), he serves as a moral compass, saying that reformation comes from a personal choice. He even warns Alex when he shows interest in the Ludovico Technique that when a man is deprived of the choice to do good or evil, he is no longer a man.

Alex gets to be the first person to undergo the Ludovico Technique for reforming criminals. Being properly nourished, the subject is strapped to a chair and their eyes are held open and they are forced to watch films of violence until they are repulsed by the thought of it.

This is what happens to Alex, and in about two weeks, he is declared reformed and ready to re-enter society. In a test, he buckles instantly to a bully, and is repulsed at his urges when a ... beautiful woman comes onstage.

So, Alex goes back to his parents, who were uninformed of his arrival. He discovers that all of his belongings were seized by the police to be sold to care for Alex's victim's cats. Even worse, a lodger now has Alex's room, and he claims he's more like a son to Alex's parents than Alex was. Unable to stand up for himself, Alex leaves.

That really struck me as a low blow for the character. Alex was thinking his parents would be surprised to see him return and pleased at his reformation, but instead, he just gets turned out onto the street. And here we find a surprise: you care about what happens to Alex now. Sure, just a matter of pages ago, you were shocked at his violence and despised just about every action, and now you feel bad for him. Well, hold on, kids, it gets worse.

Alex discovers his once-favorite classical music sickens him (the music in the films he watched is now being recognized as torture by his psyche), and he briefly considers suicide, before realizing that he probably couldn't do it, since the very thought of violence sickens him.

He goes to a library, but a librarian who he and his droogs had attacked early in the book recognizes him, and he and other old men beat Alex, until they are stopped by the police, who turn out to be Alex's former droog Dim and his former rival Billyboy. They also beat him and leave him on his own.

Alex manages to find refuge with a writer named Mr. Alexander, who turns out to be the husband of the woman that Alex and the droogs raped early on. He reveals that she died, and calls her and Alex victims of the modern age.

Alex tries to avoid letting Mr. Alexander discover what he did in the past, but he accidentally drops clues. Mr. Alexander begins to piece it together when a couple of reporters arrive and interview Alex. They take him to a room in a house and lock him in, and then blare classical music, eventually forcing Alex to jump.

He awakes in a hospital, where not only is he recovering from the injuries of his fall, but they are also reversing the effects of the Ludovico Technique. His parents invite him to stay with them again, as their boarder has left. The minister deals with Alex to avoid bad publicity by offering him a cushy job with a good salary.

Now, in early American editions, this is about where the novel ends, with Alex being practically restored to status quo, and as the movie was based on an American edition, that is where it also ended. But there was an additional chapter in all other countries, which is now in American editions as well. I, of course, went for one of these later editions.

The last chapter opens like the first, Alex with a new gang of droogs, but now, acts of violence fail to interest Alex. He runs into his old friend Pete, who has settled down and gotten married. Alex finds this peaceful life appealing, and decides to pursue it, even though, if he has children, they could make all the mistakes he made.

I found the last chapter to be the logical conclusion, as I couldn't really accept that Alex would just go back to his old life with no effects after everything he'd been through. After all, by reversing the effects of the Ludovico Technique, Alex now has the power to choose again, which brings us to the meaning of the title. Without that last chapter, the ending is open, where Alex could go one way or another with his life. Thus, the last chapter could be viewed as redundant.

Now to write what the heck the title means. "Clockwork" of course, suggests machinery, which is usually set to work one way. "Orange," in the title, is a metaphor for human beings, quoting the author: "an organism lovely with colour and juice." So, the title is talking about a human being set to do only one thing, deprived of choice. So, that's why the weird title.

The book uses slang called "Nadsat," which is loosely based on Russian words. This was done to prevent dating the book. It's a little difficult at first to catch on to, but it grows on the reader.

The movie was a very faithful adaptation, with some forgivable (for the casual viewer, anyways) changes. One subtle addition made was how obsessed with sex this future world has become, seen in the erotic art that is practically everywhere. In a society such as this, sexual crimes such as rape are inevitable. The movie even has Alex killing the old woman (who isn't so old) with a giant porcelain phallus, practically the ultimate way of saying "I am the Man!" (One last note on the movie, Malcolm McDowell was awesome as Alex.)

The thing I was disturbed about while reading the book is that I can see our society headed the way Burgess predicted it. Just this last week I read this in Dear Abby column:
Recently, I picked up the newspaper, glanced at the front page and an article caught my eye. It was about a disabled man who had been kidnapped and taken to an apartment where he was beaten. It was one of the most disgusting this I have ever read.

Not long after that, I saw another article. This time it was about a mentally challenged man who was lured from his bus stop to a deserted street, then beaten and robbed. Knowing these things happen makes me sad, angry and turns my stomach.
There is hope however. That was sent in by a 13-year old girl, asking how she could help.