While it’s a title that probably has had many readers scratching their heads, “A Clockwork Orange” is the perfect title for Burgess’s book. Our brains—while highly capable—are a stringy, wet mess of complexity, and to treat them like a clockwork machine is to invite trouble as well as to muddle what it means to be human.
This book is set in a dystopian future and features Alex, the head of a small band of teenage ne’er-do-wells who roam the streets engaging in random acts of violence. After Alex has a falling out with his band, they abandon him to be captured by the police. Institutionalized, he finds that he’s no longer a lion among sheep, but is a teenager among hardened criminal men. He’s eager to get out and after a violent precipitating event; he’s enrolled in a program that will use drugs and operant conditioning (i.e. the so-called Ludovico technique) to “cure” him of violent tendencies. Once he’s cured, they release him as he’s no longer a threat to society.
The technique works perfectly, but with the side-effect that the classical music that he used to love now makes him violently ill—because said music was used for dramatic effect in his conditioning. The days after his release are no picnic as he has run-ins with past enemies and has no ability to stand up for himself–any violence makes him ill to a physically debilitating level. He finds himself being used by anti-government dissenters who make him a poster-child for the level of authoritarianism the government has stooped to. The government ultimately caves to public opposition, and reverses the procedure. At first Alex immediately goes back to his ultra-violent ways with a newly formed crew, but he finds himself changing.
There are a couple of warnings of note. First, Alex and his friends speak in a dialect called Nadsat that is a kind of pidgin of Russian and English. It’s not hard to follow. Context usually makes the meaning clear, and only a handful of twists on Russian words are used and they are used repeatedly to the point their meaning becomes second nature. However, it should be noted that a considerable amount of the book is not in straightforward English. For example, “horrorshow” actually means “good” and it comes from the Russian хорошо (phonetically: “horosho”) which means “good.”
Second, if you’re buying a secondhand copy, make sure it has 21 chapters. In the US, an edition was released with the last chapter stripped out. (Note: some people do like it better without the last chapter, but you should probably experience it as the author intended and make up your own mind about which is best.) Needless to say, the tone of the ending is completely changed depending upon whether the last chapter is included or not.
The organization is straightforward, and consists of three parts with seven chapters each. The beginning is before Alex goes to prison, the middle is while he’s incarcerated and his experience of the Ludovico Technique, and the last part is from Alex’s release onward.
This book is a classic for good reason. It’s both an intense story and a thought-provoking morality tale. I’d highly recommend it.