The day-to-day business of writing a novel often seems to consist of nothing but decisions — decisions, decisions, decisions. Should this paragraph go here? Or should it go there? Can that chunk of exposition be diversified by dialogue? At what point does this information need to be revealed? Ought I use a different adjective and a different adverb in that sentence? Or no adverb and no adjective? Comma or semicolon? Colon or dash? And so on.
These decisions are minor, clearly enough, and they are processed more or less rationally by the conscious mind. All the major decisions, by contrast, have been reached before you sit down at your desk; and they involve not a moment’s thought. The major decisions are inherent in the original frisson — in the enabling throb or whisper (a whisper that says, Here is a novel you may be able to write). Very mysteriously, it is the unconscious mind that does the heavy lifting. No one knows how it happens.
When, in 1960, Anthony Burgess sat down to write we may be pretty sure that he had a handful of certainties about what lay ahead of him. He knew the novel would be set in the near future (and that it would take the standard science-fictional route, developing, and fiercely exaggerating, current tendencies). He knew his vicious antihero, Alex, would narrate, and that he would do so in an argot or idiolect the world had never heard before (he eventually settled on a blend of Russian, Romany and rhyming slang). He knew it would have something to do with Good and Bad, and Free Will. And he knew, crucially, that Alex would harbor a highly implausible passion: an ecstatic love of classical .
We see the wayward brilliance of that last decision when we reacquaint ourselves, after half a century, with Burgess’ leering, sneering, sniggering, sniveling young sociopath (a type unimprovably caught by in ’s uneven but justly celebrated film). “It wasn’t me, brother, sir” Alex whines at his social worker, who has hurried to the local jailhouse: “Speak up for me, sir, for I’m not so bad.” But Alex is so bad; and he knows it. The opening chapters of “A Clockwork Orange” still deliver the shock of the new: a red streak of gleeful evil.
On a night on the town Alex and his droogs (partners in crime) waylay a schoolmaster, rip up the books he is carrying, strip off his clothes and stomp on his dentures; they rob and belabor a shopkeeper and his wife (“a fair tap with a crowbar”); they give a drunken bum a kicking (“we cracked into him lovely”); and they have a ruck with a rival gang, using the knife, the chain, the straight razor. Next, they steal a car, cursorily savage a courting couple, break into a cottage owned by “another intelligent type bookman type like that we’d fillied with some hours back,” destroy the typescript of his work in progress and gang his wife. And all this has been accomplished by the time we reach Page 20.
In a brief hiatus between storms of “ultra-violence,” Alex goes home to Municipal Flatblock 18A. Here, for a change, he does nothing worse than keep his parents awake by playing the multi-speaker stereo in his room, listening to a new violin concerto, before moving on to and . Burgess evokes Alex’s sensations in a bravura passage that owes less to nadsat, or teenage pidgin, and more to the modulations of “Ulysses”:
“The trombones crunched redgold under my bed, and behind my gulliver the trumpets three-wise silverflamed, and there by the door the timps rolling through my guts and out again crunched like candy thunder. Oh, it was wonder of wonders.”Continue reading the main story
Of the fifty books Anthony Burgess wrote, this satiric, futurist novel surely is the most famous. It was popularized by the controversial film adaptation made by Stanley Kubrick in 1971. The book speaks to the social and political concerns of its times—random violence by teenagers, crime and punishment, scientifically engineered rehabilitation, and the power of the state over the individual. The novel is autobiographical, in that it concerns a writer whose wife was raped and brutalized by a gang of thugs. Burgess’ own wife, Lynne, was beaten by American soldiers while pregnant, lost the child, and could never have another. Reared as a Roman Catholic in Protestant England, Burgess was sensitive to Catholic notions of sin and redemption and to the importance of free will.
Philosophically, the novel is about moral choices, and each section begins with the question, “What’s it going to be then, eh?” There is satiric justice in Alex’s choices and their consequences. Science is able to change Alex by a process of psychological and moral castration, but the “cured” Alex can survive only in an orderly, neutered world of automatons. The transformed Alex is an “innocent,” discharged into a world that is still brutal and corrupt.
The novel is a satirical allegory in the guise of science fiction. Burgess satirizes scientists who remove themselves from ethical and moral issues in the service of a politically corrupt police state. The novel shows forcefully that there are no easy answers to complex questions involving the nature of good and evil or crime and punishment. Alex is shaped by the brutal technological world he inhabits. The psychological reasoning that motivates his violence and the perverse, sadistic pleasure he derives from it are not fully investigated. There is no attempt made to alter Alex’s beliefs, only to change into pain the pleasure he derives from violent sadism. Science is interested only in achieving results that will be beneficial to society and cares nothing about the individual in this dystopia.