A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

A review of the transgressive science fiction satire A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.

To his immense credit, Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange was very much a product of its time. Feeding off public anxiety about the rise of anti-establishment youth subcultures in the 1950s and early 1960s (Teddy boys, mods and rockers, etc.), the story of teenage psychopath Alex and his rampage of violence has since been eclipsed in the public imagination by Malcolm McDowell’s milk-supping antics in Stanley Kubrick’s cult film adaptation in 1971.

What seems to have been forgotten is just how prophetic Burgess’ original novel was at the time of its release—it appeared on bookshelves before Beatlemania and the era of ‘Ready Steady Go’ kicked off the Swinging Sixties, ushered in by Twiggy’s miniskirt sending youth subcultures into a frenzy, before young hippies run rampant for the remainder of the decade with dalliances in free love and drug experimentation. With this in mind, Burgess singling out of rebellious youth was totally spot on.

In fact, Burgess anticipated the cultural zeitgeist so expertly it even pre-dated the widespread moral panic about youth violence and delinquency by two years, an event best represented by the media scare around mods and rockers fighting on Margate beach in 1964. Of course, the roots of these fears about youth gangs ran far deeper historically, but it’s a testament to his insight that Burgess was able to produce a story of such razor-sharp social relevance.

Long before the freak scene hit Frisco and flairs were in vogue, A Clockwork Orange told of a dystopic near-future Britain in which gangs of ‘droogs’ prowled the streets in outlandish clothes committing senseless acts of violence on anyone who crossed their path. Soundtracked by their appreciation for classical music and energised by glasses of milk laced with drugs, Burgess was clearly subverting young people’s predilection for popular music at the time (rock ‘n’ roll, Motown, doo wop, etc.) and predicted the onset of a more laissez-faire attitude to recreational drug use.

Then there’s Burgess’ use of language here—‘nadsat’—a form of slang intended to evoke the sense of a youth speaking an alien language. In today’s world of internet slang and kidspeak, this is still very pertinent—parents these days often fail to understand their own children with phrases like “peng” and “on fleek” popping up. The use of Russian language in A Clockwork Orange smacks of Soviet paranoia of the Cold War era, a worry that the status quo would lose young minds if they gravitated politically towards communism.

A Clockwork Orange, however, is not without flaws. It’s not an easy read, for a start, thanks largely to Anthony Burgess’ bold literary experimentation in his use of language. Given that it is a socio-cultural expression of youth paranoia induced by an ongoing moral panic among the middle classes, I’d say it’s forgivable. By the end of the novel, I’d grown familiar enough with some ‘nadsat’ phrases to discern Burgess’s meaning, though some readers may struggle. However, if you consider just how timely this novel was, it’s clear A Clockwork Orange deserves its reputation as a literary classic, but readers need to think beyond what’s on the page—taking into account its socio-cultural context and historical grounding—and that’s the best way to really appreciate what makes it so audacious and visionary.

Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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