I’ve long discussed the merits of reading over, say, movie-watching. Typically, my thesis is that the written word can be pulled and prodded in different directions and thus the imagination is not limited by such realities as the director’s vision, the actor’s abilities or the advancements in CGI. This could actually prove detrimental for certain reads but, luckily, I have also argued that in books the “scary parts” can more easily be muted or skipped over entirely – think Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho.
What then, did I think of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange? I have never attempted to sit down and watch Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange – the various scenes that I have been privy to over the years were enough to ensure I wouldn’t. Gene Kelly’s iconic dance in the rain is forever ruined, the tony restaurant in Calgary named Model Milk conjures an image that is, I assume, completely unintended and a jock strap will never ever be just a jock strap. Thanks to Kubrick.
So, knowing all of this, why did I subject myself to the written version where I’ve already argued our imaginations are free to run wild, unchastened? Like Burgess’ protagonist Alex I guess I thought “evil has to exist along with good, in order that moral choice may operate.” I cannot know what I am objecting to if I don’t first subject myself to it.
And, in essence, this is what Burgess so masterfully writes about. The first hint of the power of his writing comes about 20 pages in when, after being so frustrated to start, the reader all of a sudden finds himself interpreting a slightly foreign language. Set sometime in the future, Burgess alters the dialect of English that Alex and his droogs speak: much like teens today, certain words are replaced by monikers known only to them. Initially, this is a challenge for the reader. While some substitutions are easy to comprehend – “this must be a real horrorshow film if you’re so keen on my viddying it” – others don’t follow so easily: “I lay all nagoy to the ceiling, my gulliver on my rookers on the pillow, glazzies closed, rot open in bliss, slooshying the sluice of lovely sounds.” But somewhere amidst the Rousseau-like message of Burgess, the ultra-violence, and the never-ending rape scenes the dialect becomes idiomatic.
The book is often touted (or banned) for being “a nightmare vision of a not-too-distant future” and while I would not encourage a 12 year old to read it, that very summary is the reason that rational, able-to-think-for-themselves adults need to read it: “Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses to be bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?” Like the truly great reads that have persisted and will continue to persist for generations, A Clockwork Orange must not be read at face value. The shock should shake your grey matter, forcing underused neurons to fire, neurons questioning our actions our freedom of choice and our moral integrity.
As Alex would say, “What’s it going to be then, eh?”