First and foremost, this is a book only recommended for adults. Trust me.
The saving grace in regards to the now-infamous horror between the pages of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess is that, through the narrator, everything from milk-drinking to ultra-violence is filtered. While civilians are terrorised by each other in Burgess’ dystopia, these events only reach the reader in fragments. Besides the presence of the textbook-psychopathic narrator, Alex, this is mostly due to Nadsat; the Anglo-Russian language of delinquency, spoken painstakingly throughout the ENTIRE book, which nods to global anxieties about communism versus capitalism and anarchy versus totalitarianism. This language, my friends, is a living, breathing metaphor for the book’s subject – choice.
Alex is fifteen, and as our unreliable narrator, we experience life through his eyes. Floating between two languages, he also faces two ways of living and two daily options: to sin or not to sin. Alex and his gang of prestoopniks – sorry, Nadsat – criminals, known affectionately as “droogs”, choose to economise on brain power and simply follow the moral compass of their own unchecked impulses. In a classicist, bigoted dystopia that resembles the nightmare lovechild of Orwell and Kafka, how good can those impulses be? Spoiler alert: awful enough to get the book historically banned. Multiple times.
So cult that it’s mainstream, A Clockwork Orange is actually one of the most straightforward novels I’ve read, which is a relief, seeing as Burgess is doing the literary equivalent of juggling flaming chainsaws. Its three parts detail the rise, peak, and fall of Alex and his urge for ultra-violent gratification, and throughout the chapters we hear a question, drumming on like a deranged heartbeat: “What’s it going to be then, eh?” The book asks for an awareness of choice. Alex chooses to do wrong, Alex chooses to dodge prison through a reform program, and then, suddenly, Alex can’t choose anymore. Is it better to choose to do bad than be forced to do good? Whose idea is violence when you grow up in a droog-eat-droog world? And, is evil justifiable if it prevents more evil? A Clockwork Orange – an organic being turned mechanical – might be the only thing capable of enacting good to the letter.
This Halloween SKETCHY REVIEW isn’t about the supernatural, but nature itself, from which all variety of monsters emerge. This book is a parable, a dead-end question, and a reminder of the limitless evil of free choice. In Nadsat – it’s real horrorshow… and I don’t need to translate that.
“Alex” illustration and words by Esmeralda Voegele-Downing