A Clockwork Orange
By Anthony Burgess
Few things date as quickly as teen speech and fashion, but the outrageousness of Anthony Burgess’s dystopian satire of the state of England in 1962 (by most accounts a rather glum place), especially when combined with Stanley Kubrick’s rendering of the same, make A Clockwork Orange nearly as fresh today as it must have been sixty years ago. Where Burgess’s made-up Nadsat still has a fierce intelligence and energy to it, Valspeak, for anyone who still remembers that, just seems stupid.
What has always impressed me the most about the book though is the humble narrator Alex’s presentation as someone who is both glib and charming but also thick as a brick. He fancies himself the leader of his gang of droogs, but even the hulking Dim manages to stay a step ahead of him all the time. Then there’s his surprise at figuring out that those aren’t vitamins he’s being injected with, and that the political do-gooders don’t have his own best interests at heart. Oh, to be so wicked and so naïve. Not a good combination, especially given what I think is the book’s most important political statement: that everyone is authoritarian in an authoritarian state.
The specter of a clockwork humanity was something Burgess thought “too didactic to be artistic,” an assessment that might also be leveled at the novel’s Sixties bunkmate One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, published the same year. Randle Patrick McMurphy and Alex are birds of a feather, free spirits broken by the system. In America, however, being anti-authority had less of a dark side. The Merry Pranksters weren’t raping and killing people (though Murphy does have statutory rape on his rap sheet). In England young people might have been seen as a more direct threat to the public. Or at least to the sad old codgers who use the biblio as a kind of senior center. Because Alex has a passion for classical music, but reading isn’t his thing. And that’s probably for the best.