The Resolution Project: For my New Year’s resolution this year (that being 2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I exempted myself from reading ones I’ve already read, leaving some eighty-six or so to read before the end of this year. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned.
“As I slooshied, my glazzies tight shut to shut in the bliss that was better than any synthemesc Bog or God, I knew such lovely pictures. There were vecks and ptitsas, both young and starry, lying on the ground screaming for mercy, and I was smecking all over my rot and grinding my boot in their litsos. And there were devotchkas ripped and creeching against walls and I was plunging like a shlaga into them, and indeed when the music, which was one movement only, rose to the top of its big highest tower, then, lying there on my bed with glazzies tight shut and rookers behind my gulliver, I broke and spattered and cried aaaaaaah with the bliss of it. And so the lovely music glided to its glowing close.” (p.25)
Here’s a book that many people I know were surprised I hadn’t read before for whatever reason. Of the books I’ve read so far on the Resolution Project, this one’s probably the best known, although less so for Anthony Burgess’ actual text and mostly for the fantastic film adaptation helmed by Stanley Kubrick in 1971. 15-year old Alex lives in a dystopian future, where gangs populated by “droogs” rule the streets like barbarians, raping and pillaging their way through a terrified populace every night. After a night out that ends in a horrific murder and Alex’s subsequent betrayal by his cohorts, he is sentenced to a long prison sentence, of which he serves only two years before getting out upon being subjected to the horrific “Ludovico” rehabilitory technique. The toughest part about this experimental drug/video stimulation treatment is not the things he’s forced to see, no it’s the fact that the scientists use his beloved classical music during these scenes, taking away from Alex the only thing that made him close to being a human being.
I enjoyed this book far more than I thought I would. I first saw the movie years ago, and I admired it for its audacity (not to mention for its being my first taste of the Kubrick oeuvre) and message. I watched it again this week to get back into the frame of reference, and while it’s not what you would call a fun film, there’s a few bits of levity in Malcolm McDowell’s full-body performance and excellent oratory skills. The book, however, I found to be a lot more entertaining, much more so than other great dystopian works like George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. What endeared me to it was a combination of the language used throughout, as well as the style of narration provided by Alex (both of which are things I liked about the movie too, to a lesser extent).
Burgess, the introduction by Blake Morrison tells me, drew upon the conflicts he saw between the English “Teddy boy” and “Mod” teen subcultures of the day for some inspiration, but a lot of it also sprang from his fertile imagination. The lovely “nadsat” patois that Alex and his droogs speak throughout I found to be a fun puzzle, as my copy did not have a glossary (in addition to trimming the last chapter, the first American version had one). And to be quite honest, you don’t need it at all. Passages like the one quoted above are a little tough to get through at first, but once you start figuring out the lingo, you can just sit back and be entertained by the intricate wordplay. Nadsat (there’s a dictionary here, if you want to be a spoilsport, or if you just want to check it out) is a combination of cockney rhyming slang, Russian and even some Elizabethan English at times. It’s strange, but the constant usage of this made up language throughout made me like the book more than some other attempts to replicate the way people spoke in a certain era (I’m looking at you, here, Beloved), due to the fact that I’ve never heard anyone talk like that before, and it doesn’t read as a clumsy way to replicate a dialect I could do more efficiently in my head.
I’m also quite fond of Alex’s narration. He’s a charming asocial monster, who continually refers to himself as “your humble Narrator”, and to the readership at large as “my brothers.” While he does indeed do some incredibly reprehensible shit, you’ve kind of got to enjoy his joie de vivre, and even begin to empathize with him after the State is through fucking with his “gulliver.” Again, the use of nadsat as opposed to our language helps to this end, Burgess himself (in the intro) saying that it serves as a barrier between us as readers and the violence perpetrated by Alex. Had everything been described to us in modern English, I feel the book would have been closer to a Cormac McCarthy nihilism-festival of horrors (one of the big difficulties I have been having with Blood Meridian), but in nadsat, the reader is able to catch himself enjoying the spectacle at times. You then have to reflect on why violence is entertaining, letting you briefly glimpse the droog that lives inside us all.
In this Canadian election year, the way Burgess-by-way-of-Alex looks at politics is especially important and eerily prescient. Alex’s treatment at the hands of Dr. Brodsky becomes a bit of a cause celebre after his release, which makes you think about how our current Conservative government likes to view itself as “tough on crime” as seen in this passage:
“This gazetta I had seemed to be a Government gazetta, for the only news that was on the front page was about the need for every veck to make sure he put the Government back in again on the next General Election, which seemed to be about two or three weeks off. There were very boastful slovos about what the Government had done, brothers, in the last year or so, what with increased exports and a real horrorshow foreign policy and improves social services and all that cal. But what the Government was really boastful about was the way in which they reckoned the streets had been made safer for all peace-loving night-walking lewdies in the last six months, what with better pay for the police and the police getting like tougher with young hooligans and perverts and burglars and all that cal. Which interessovated Your Humble Narrator some deal.” (p.98)
To me, this sounds much like, say, my hometown rag the Edmonton Sun espousing wise on how the Conservative government has done such a good job governing me in the past few years, and how if I’d like to stave off the complete and utter annihilation of everything I hold dear I’d better fucking vote for them or else the Commie-Pinko-Terrorist Internationalista will win. But I digress. What Burgess implies throughout A Clockwork Orange is that the Government doesn’t really mind the likes of Alex and his ilk running around causing havoc, as it provides easy talking points with which to appeal to the “law and order” vote. This is a lot like Orwell’s revolving door adversaries of Eurasia and Eastasia in 1984, which also keep the populace in a general state of heightened awareness of everything but their overlords. In fact, the most disturbing part of Burgess’ novel is that some of the films Alex is subjected to during the Ludovico Technique sequence are real depictions of violence and rape, with the implication that the Government either set up those events or just let them happen without interference.
Overall, even though it has been unfairly shadowed by the equally excellent film adaptation, which cut off the book’s true ending (where Alex realizes his barbaric ways are in fact a part of growing up, albeit a little extreme), A Clockwork Orange is a fantastically potent book, even more relevant today than when it was originally published.
Total pages read since January 1st: 4964 pp
Next up on the Resolution Project: William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967)