Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran
A Clockwork Orange
Number 65 on the Modern Library’s list is A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, one of my favorite novels of all times and also one of my favorite movies (made by Stanley Kubrick). There are distinct reasons for both being favorites but the unifying appeal is Burgess’s superbly imaginative linguistics.
Like Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World (both also on the list), A Clockwork Orange depicts a dystopian world of the not terribly distant future in which the things ordinary people are currently discomfited by have logically grown to oppressive proportions. The protagonist and narrator is Alex, an anti-hero if there ever was one. He is a truly appealing and appalling young teenaged thug living with his overly permissive, useless parents in anarchical urban England. He is lively, intelligent, and dandyish, with a seemingly paradoxical love of Beethoven. Along with an ethos of hedonism and violence, he and his friends have developed a richly expressive language that leans heavily on Russian. (The book was published in 1962, amidst the Cold War.)
As an amateur linguist and full-blown philologist, I revel in this aspect of the novel. It is intriguing and amusing to read. The language is only one compelling aspect, however, and in some ways the superficial one. As teenage slang provides cover to its users so they can talk about what they need to talk about without comprehension or interference from adults, the invented language dresses up the narrative, which is of a society degenerated into a mess of hierarchically ordered exploitative violence.
Alex’s attitudes and actions are of the type we are frightened of, being apparently senseless and uncontrollable. What is more intimidating to an unsure adult than a strong boy of adult physicality with no internal constraints on his behavior? The fear is both physical and moral: This boy could do us harm, and we are the ones who should have taught him better. Alex himself is also a victim, however, to passivity on the part of his parents, misplaced hyper-control from school and law authority (think of the zero-tolerance policy common in present-day elementary schools), and finally psychological torture in the name of the greater good by dispassionate social scientists, the most frightening prospect of all.
The beauty of the novel is how it constructs a feeling of connection between the reader and Alex. He should be our worst nightmare, but instead he is disturbingly attractive. He is the narrator of our decline, the commentator on our faults. He pulls the veil off all the things we don’t want to own up to. Alex will grow up, if he does not end up lobotomized in some fashion or other, into an adult, as will his friends. He embodies the trend of the world, set in motion by this thing called society, in which no individual is compelled to take responsibility in his or her own time. He should be a warning, but he is charming and captivating and sets us off-balance.
The book itself is slim and quick. The writing is irresistible. You have to dive right in to the slang, accepting it, comprehending through context. The first paragraph alone contains more than a dozen neologisms, not to mention the novel grammar and stylistic constructs of Alex’s speech. And so you immediately take your place there in the milk bar, poised to accompany this character through his story, embedded, as it were—complicit.
Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia as an editor for a medical publisher. She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.