a clockwork expired

life imitates art: kubrick and burgess start off well together but eventually part ways

I watched Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, and while I’d like to dismiss it as utter shite and be done with it, the film has been studied at Cambridge and the set and costume designs are iconic, so I’ll take the time to elaborate.

Kubrick’s film ages poorly. The exaggerated cinematography and acting style may have been ‘fresh’ decades ago, but are kitsch now. That’s bad enough. What I take most exception to, however, is Kubrick not only slashes Burgess’s ending, he chops the balls off Alex.

Alex is no victim.

In the novel, there are no sexual advances made by P. R. Deltoid; Alex drugs and savagely rapes two ten-year old girls, a 180º departure from the borderline-slapstick sex scene in Kubrick’s adaptation; he ‘accidentally’ murders three strangers instead of one; and the ‘naughty, naughty’ cat-lady isn’t a pervert, just old.

not the only balls mishandled by kubrick

Kubrick’s tendency to mitigate Alex’s crimes denies the seminal question in Burgess’s novel: Alex is rotten to the core, but does he deserve to be robbed of his will? Pandering to the viewers’ sympathy by victimizing or endearing him while objectifying his victims, is as condescending as it is objectionable.

While I can abide the obvious limitations of the medium, what I find untenable is Kubrick’s low opinion of his audience. The pretentious and tortured direction (excluding the murder animation, which I dig immensely) and Alex’s overstated regression are only further insult.

a clockwork reaction

two words: infectious violence

milk-plus mesto

A Clockwork Orange is Burgess’s philosophical exposition into crime and punishment. It is the story of Alex, a vicious man-child deep in the throws of a menacing solipsism.

Badness is of the self…what I do I do because I like to do. p.33

Like his choice of drink, ‘milk with knives in it’, Alex is a potent mix of unchecked impulses and brute force. His appetite for ultra-violence, bashings or rape depending on the victim’s gender, is voracious.

the in-out-in-out for girls...

...and tolchocks for boys

Eventually, his brand of violence graduates to murder, after which he is apprehended. While in custody he encounters a barrage of sophisticated, sustained and sanctioned annihilation previously unknown to him. It involves deep hypnosis and its intent is to obscure volition. “Violence makes violence,” p.57, but this brand is beyond young Alex.

(A lurking ethical dilemma stirs…)

alex is brutalized...

He is so utterly violated in his two-week ‘treatment’ and in subsequent poetic confrontations that he jumps from a  high rise within a day of his release.

(The dilemma materializes: Is Alex’s cure worse than his crime? My gut reaction: I hate the little shit, so who cares.)

I’m disgusted to learn Alex has not perished from the fall, but is hospitalized where a sycophantic team of medics reverses his ‘treatment’, after which he receives a personal apology from the Minister. All vestige of ‘punishment’ removed, he is free to wreak havoc once more, which he does.

By now, I’m furious, which ironically facilitates insight on the destructive impulse: As with any lynching, violence is infectious, inherently human and latent. Does this mean we all at some level qualify for reconditioning?

...before a real dose of violence.

Thankfully, the novel isn’t over and the dènouement offers redemption, to all of us. I agree with Burgess in Resucked. Without his arithmological 21st chapter a terrible sacrifice is made for sensationalism. Without Burgess’s ending, Alex indefinitely wages an untouchable war with britva (knife) and pan-handle (erection). The castration is entirely of the novel. But with the 21st chapter, Alex self-castrates and compulsively joins the ranks of procreating grown-ups. The castration is entirely of the character, the way it has to be, or the novel is as arbitrary and pointless (well, not entirely) as Alex’s violence.

A Clockwork Orange is confronting, which is precisely where its appeal lies. While the linguistic maze of Burgess’s idiolect is intriguing, it is the visceral reaction to his ethical question that has left me speechless. A ferocious thirst for blood quenched, I am left to contemplate my eager acceptance of invasive ‘treatment’ as punishment and the startling similarities between A Clockwork Orange, easily in my top ten, and 1984, a novel I despise.

Two other things deserve special mention: One is Kubrick’s movie. The stills are compelling and I highly anticipate seeing the adaptation. The other is Alex’s/Burgess’s own soundtrack. His fictional concerto on p.29 is the most beautiful depiction of music I’ve ever read.

ode to joy-ludwig van beethoven
firestarter-the prodigy


my second-hand $8 copy

I keep At Swim-Two-Birds on tap as without it I’d be a sniveling shell of a reader crouched piteously in a dark corner waiting for a masked author to hack me to pieces. It is my lone promise of comedy for the next ten books or so, which includes the grim reaper himself, Cormac McCarthy with Blood Meridian, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and Anthony Burgess’s  A Clockwork Orange.

Which, in turn, led Galactus and me to argue the prevalence of horrors and tragedies on The List. He thinks it’s because ‘critics’ are horrible tragics themselves and I’m loathe to agree. Reference first sentence in post.

A Clockwork Orange is next up because I’m still struggling with the soporific effect of An American Tragedy and I need another short book to remain on target.

I tried A Clockwork Orange many years ago and dismissed it as inaccessible after a few sentences. familialdiscontent urged otherwise and I’m grateful. While the violence is staggering, the tone is brilliant and I’m really enjoying the read. The few Slav words picked up from Galactus’s family, context and this nadsat lexicon solve the access problem.

Here are some juicy tit-bits on A Clockwork Orange:

  1. The title derives from an English adage, ‘to be as queer as a clockwork orange’, which is something appearing natural on the outside, but actually machine on the inside. It alludes to what Alex, the protagonist, will become after ‘corrective’ experimentation.
  2. U.S. publishers originally axed the dénouement to facilitate a ‘less Kennedyan/more Nixonian’ ambiguity. Burgess was not impressed, but caved for the dough. He later commented on his amputated novel, “Life is, of course, terrible,” Resucked, 1986. When I learned this I quickly flipped to the back of my copy to see if it had 20 or 21 chapters. It is, sadly, whole. A deformed novel would have been awesome.

    a clockwork orange film poster, 1971

  3. Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film adaptation, lead by a very young Malcolm McDowell, is based on the U.S. text. It claims four Oscar nods and is highly recommended by Galactus. I’ve been warned to brace myself, but I’m very keen to see it. It looks the heighth of horrorshow.

    mcdowell as alex, 1971

I gather the novel makes the film seem tame.


Though still a work in progress, here are the novels that I’ll be reading in 2011.

Struck through titles have been completed.
Bold titles are presently being read.
* indicates reread.

  1. 1984-1948-George Orwell
  2. The Adventures of Augie March-1953-Saul Bellow
  3. All The King’s Men-1946-Robert Penn Warren
  4. American Pastoral-1997-Philip Roth
  5. An American Tragedy-1925-Theodore Dreiser
  6. Animal Farm-1946-George Orwell*
  7. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret-1970-Judy Blume
  8. At Swim-Two-Birds-1938-Flann O’Brien
  9. Atonement-2002-Ian McEwan
  10. Beloved-1987-Toni Morrison*
  11. The Big Sleep-1939-Raymond Chandler
  12. The Blind Assassin-2000-Margaret Atwood
  13. Blood Meridian-1986-Cormac McCarthy
  14. Catch-22-1961-Joseph Heller
  15. The Catcher in the Rye-1951-J.D. Salinger*
  16. A Clockwork Orange-1963-Anthony Burgess
  17. The Corrections-2001-Jonathan Franzen
  18. The Death of the Heart-1958-Elizabeth Bowen
  19. The French Lieutenant’s Woman-1969-John Fowles
  20. Go Tell it on the Mountain-1953-James Baldwin
  21. The Grapes of Wrath-1939-John Steinbeck
  22. The Great Gatsby-1925-F. Scott Fitzgerald
  23. A Handful of Dust-1934-Evelyn Waugh
  24. The Heart is A Lonely Hunter-1940-Carson McCullers
  25. The Heart of the Matter-1948-Graham Greene
  26. Herzog-1964-Saul Bellow
  27. Housekeeping-1981-Marilynne Robinson
  28. I, Claudius-1934-Robert Graves
  29. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe-1950-C. S. Lewis
  30. Lolita-1955-Vladimir Nabokov*
  31. Lord of the Flies-1955-William Golding
  32. Lucky Jim-1954-Kingsley Amis
  33. The Man Who Loved Children-1940-Christina Stead
  34. Midnight’s Children-1981-Salman Rushdie
  35. Mrs. Dalloway-1925-Virginia Woolf
  36. Naked Lunch-1959-William Burroughs
  37. Never Let Me Go-2005-Kazuo Ishiguro
  38. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest-1962-Ken Kesey
  39. The Painted Bird-1965-Jerzy Kosinski
  40. A Passage to India-1924-E. M. Forster
  41. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie-1961-Muriel Sparks
  42. Snow Crash-1992-Neal Stephenson
  43. The Sound and the Fury-1929-William Faulkner
  44. The Sun Also Rises-1926-Ernest Hemingway
  45. Super Sad True Love Story-2010-Gary Shteyngart
  46. Things Fall Apart-1959-Chinua Achebe*
  47. To the Lighthouse-1927-Virginia Woolf
  48. Ubik-1969-Phillip Dick
  49. Ulysses-1922-James Joyce
  50. Under The Net-1954-Iris Murdoch
  51. Under The Volcano-1947-Malcolm Lowry
  52. Watchmen-1986-Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons*
  53. White Teeth-2000-Zadie Smith*
  54. Wide Sargasso Sea-1966-Jean Rhys*