A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess

A Clockwork Orange is one of those books which everyone sort of vaguely feels like they ought to have read, at some point. I figured this year – the year in which I am aiming to reach my target of 250 new books read – was a good time to knock a few of those off my list. To be honest, I’d kind of avoided it up til now, because all I really knew about it was how violent it was supposed to be… and really, with all of the actual real-life violence in the world, who needs to add fictional violence to the mix? But it was on my list, so I gave it a go.

It is violent, very much so – but I didn’t feel like I wanted to cover my eyes while reading it, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the first-person narrative shows you the violence through the jaded eyes of the fifteen year old perpetrator, Alex, who isn’t shocked, or appalled, or even seemingly bothered at all by the atrocities going on. Weirdly, as a reader, this has the effect of both making it easier to read about – if he isn’t bothered, we’re less bothered – and of worsening the horror. It’s like a slow burn rather than immediate shock; I found myself unsettled by how easy I found it to encounter the ‘ultra-violence’, when I’m normally super-squeamish about… well, everything!

This is intentional, of course – by forcing the reader to identify with such an antagonist, the reader is forced to contemplate their own violent impulses, and attitudes toward violence. In condemning the villain, you also have to condemn yourself, which makes the whole experience much more complex than simple baddies and goodies…. just like in real life.

Secondly, Burgess has created an insanely dense slang language – almost a patois – which has an enormous distancing effect on the action. It’s genius, really – he rarely explains what words mean, and the reader is left to figure out the meaning from the context. It’s definitely possible to do this – you have to sort of just relax your brain and let the sentences wash through, hoping that they leave their meaning behind them… and usually, they do, which is so clever. But it also means you’re not thinking too hard about the violence, but instead concentrating on the language and the bigger picture of the plot.

Overall, A Clockwork Orange was way easier to read than I expected it to be. Instead of being repulsed and slightly queasy, I was left thinking about identity, and what makes us us, and the ethics of social conditioning, and nature versus nurture. Well worth a read, if it’s lingering on your ‘I really ought to at some point’ list.

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