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Listen Up, Droogs

By Kriegerfrau | Books | June 29, 2010 |

By Kriegerfrau | Books | June 29, 2010 |

Listen up, droogs. If you’ve only seen the Stanley Kubrick film, you haven’t really gotten the whole story. And I mean that literally. I didn’t know this until I got this edition, but when A Clockwork Orange was published around 1961-62, it was published complete and whole, all 21 chapters, in his native England. Subsequent translations were also published whole.

However, in the U.S., Burgess’s publishers said “um, yeah we don’t like that 21st chapter. It’s too happy. We like how it ends if you cut it off at chapter 20.”

I didn’t even know you could do that when you publish a book. Especially against an author’s wishes. However, as Burgess explains in the introduction, he was young and he didn’t fully believe in this book anyway. He figured well, whatever. (I’m paraphrasing, of course.) Publish it however you like, Yanks. Or ram it up your ass sideways. Like I care. (Still paraphrasing, but the spirit is pretty much the same. It hacked him off.)

Fast-forward to the ’80s and Norton Publishers said you know what? That was screwed up. Let’s publish it with the last chapter attached for American readers. FINALLY. Twenty-some odd years after it was first published. And back to Kubrick: He made the film to reflect the original American ending. Remember our honorable narrator Alex all banged up in the hospital and smirking about how he’s cured now? Dark dark ending. Full of foreboding.

Not the ending.

I wasn’t totally impressed with how Burgess wrote the ending (and neither was he, apparently), but I did love the spirit of it MUCH more than the 20th chapter as the end.

I won’t ruin it for you, malchicks. Here’s the deal: You will have to struggle a bit with the language. Burgess created this hyper-intense teen slang based on, it seems, a good deal of Russian and Polish (remember when he was writing this—the Cold War) and it’s such a strong part of Alex’s identity that he lays it on thick. The good news is it does get easier. I was surprised at how long it took me to viddy the language, but once I got it good in my gulliver, it made me smeck. Of course, towards the end, he eases up a bit, but I hardly noticed by that point. (I even started thinking in the slang.)

Another thing you’ll have to contend with are the descriptions of “ultraviolence” and “the old in and out” (which is his term for rape). In the movie, he lures two women or older teens back to his parents’ apartment for what appears to be an orgy. In the book, he lures two ten year old girls back to his parents’ apartment, gives them alcohol, then rapes them both. Repeatedly. I was disgusted to discover the difference. Fortunately besides the poor old woman with the cats, the middle aged couple, and the old bum, these are the only incidents you really have to read through. As Alex says early on, “what I do I do because I like to do.” He gives no more thought to it than that. Ultraviolence is simply fun to him, running around with his droogs beating and raping others (killing is really not his thing; however, a couple of deaths happen as a result or accidentally).

What impresses me about Burgess is that he can manage to take a character like Alex, and by about the three-quarter point in the novel, make him sympathetic. I know it’s hard to imagine feeling a bit of sympathy for such a fiend. But again, another difference from film to book: I also never realized Alex is fifteen. And my sympathy did not come when he was in prison (with adults, by the way). Nope. It didn’t even appear when he was being conditioned out of his violent inclinations. (But that’s a big question, O my brothers, should the government be in that kind of business?) It was only much later, when he is violently ill at the very thought of even defending himself against violence, when all he wants is to be left alone, to cry, to listen to Beethoven and Bach and Mozart, when his parents have taken on a sort of a surrogate son in his place, when he is being used by both anti-government people and the government, when he just becomes a pawn, a thing, when he attempts to do what he attempts to do, that’s when you slowly begin to realize that you have the tiniest bit of human feeling for this guy. Bravo, Burgess. Bravo.

It’s hard to resist telling you about the 21st chapter, but I must. It does indeed change the entire ending. And I’ll let the author himself speak for that: “There is, in fact, not much point in writing a novel unless you can show the possibility of moral transformation, or an increase in wisdom, operating in your chief character or characters. Even trashy bestsellers show people changing. When a fictional work fails to show change, when it merely indicates that human character is set, stony, unregenerable, then you are out of the field of the novel and into that of the fable or the allegory. The American or Kubrickian Orange is a fable; the British or world one is a novel.”

By the way, I think the strongest message in the book comes from a fairly minor, but insistent character: the prison charlie who is in charge of the religious training of prisoners. He completely disagrees with the “rehabilitation” the government is pursuing, saying “Goodness is something chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.”

And all that cal.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Kriegerfrau’s reviews, check out his blog.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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