A Clockwork Orange ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Besides classical music (especially Ludwig van Beethoven and Johann Sebastian Bach), Alex loves ultra-violence. He is only fifteen, but every evening he meets his three “droogs” (Pete, Georgie and Dim) to go out and terrorize anybody unfortunate enough to fall into their clutches on the streets. They especially target the elderly and those incapable of defending themselves. The “millicents” (police) are not very effective against these roving bands of predatory thugs, so most people, if they are able to reason things out, do not go out at night.
Alex lives with his “pee and em” (parents) on the tenth floor of a building of flats. The pee and em think Alex is a good boy who has an evening job that brings in a little money. He is good at making them think whatever he wants them to think. They don’t know that he gets his money from stealing and from robbing innocent victims. (When his father asks him just exactly what his evening job is, he politely sidesteps the issue.)
After a while things start to go bad for Alex, oh my brothers! His droogs turn on him and challenge his authority as their leader. What’s even worse, a “baboochka” (old woman) he beats up during a home burglary dies of her injuries and the millicents, finally, catch him and sentence him to twenty years behind bars. Well, conditions are terrible in prison, with six to a cell, and after a few months Alex kills another prisoner. Because he is young, authorities believe he is worth reclaiming, so they put him in a special treatment program (the Ludovico technique), whereby he will be “cured” of his violent criminal tendencies and released back into society in a fortnight. He doesn’t know, of course, that the treatment is the worst thing he will ever experience in his life.
The treatment consists of, besides drugs, “associative conditioning” in which Alex is forced (strapped to a table, eyes forcibly kept open) to watch films set to music of tortures, rapes, stabbings, murders and assorted acts of violence. The violence he is forced to witness in the films makes Alex so ill that, presumably, he will never be able to commit such acts again himself. But, wait a minute, isn’t the government going too far with this treatment? By taking away Alex’s free will to decide for himself, aren’t they turning him into a “clockwork orange,” a being that is organic and mechanical at the same time? After Alex is cured, maybe he will need a “cure” for the cure.
A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, was first published in 1963. It is set in Britain, in a frightening distant future. It is Alex’s story, told in his voice, so it’s what he thinks and what he feels. The slang the characters in the novel use is called “nadsat” (teenage) language. If you are a new reader, approaching A Clockwork Orange for the first time, don’t be put off by the slang. You can almost always tell, by word association, what the word is supposed to be. In the paperback edition I read (two times now), there’s a glossary in the back of the book to translate the slang into recognizable English words.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp