• The Good: A linguistic and philosophical adventure
  • The Bad: Ultra-violent; maybe a bit heavy handed
  • The Literary: Language, art, music

Fifteen-year-old gang leader Alex and his friends (droogs) sit in their favorite hangout, the Korova Milk Bar, drinking milk-plus to prepare for a night of ultra-violence. In a near-future dystopia Alex narrates his adventures and exploits, including his arrest and the state’s methods of reforming him of his criminal nature.

Wow, what a book. Author Roald Dahl describes it as “terrifying and marvelous”, which pretty well sums it up. The novel is broken up into three parts, seven chapters each, and every section is terrifying and marvelous in its own way.

Part one is a view into Alex’s world. In short, he and his droogs take drugs and perform various acts of ultra-violence. I couldn’t read these chapters very fast; in fact, I spaced them out on purpose because I find them so chillingly malicious. All in the first evening, the teens assault multiple people, several to hospitalization, destroy property, steal a car, and gang-rape a woman after breaking into her home. Alex is a repeat offender, and as the narrator, you see into his perspective. He thinks it’s fun.

The ultra-violence doesn’t stop there. The next day Alex feigns illness to skip school, drugs and rapes two pre-teen girls, cuts his friend’s face to assert his dominance as leader, and breaks and enters the house of an old lady before beating her unconscious. This book is seriously difficult to read, and I can’t recommend it highly, because I know many are sensitive to violence. I’m not normally that person. I like my cathartic violence in books and movies. But this isn’t cathartic; it’s savage.

So why do I love this book? It’s a linguistic adventure. The constructed language Nadsat is vernacular speech, a collection of slang for those in Alex’s wider circle. Nadsat is mostly English, with Russian influences. Though as I read it, I’m not thinking about its etymology. Instead, I’m pulled into a world that is foreign, yet totally familiar in its youth subculture’s rejection of societal norms.

The language requires close reading, which fully immerses you in Alex’s mind and certainly contributes a feeling of being too close to such a sociopathic young man. Some of the language pulls from the Bible and Shakespeare, creating a contrast between beautiful language and horrific actions. All along, it’s clear that Alex is intelligent and quick-witted, enjoying classical music, particularly Beethoven (aka lovely Ludwig Van), despite his droogs’ unappreciation of the field. Again, there’s a dissonance between beautiful music and senseless violence.

In part two, Alex is selected to undergo an experimental form of aversion therapy to cure him of his evil, where he’s injected with nausea-inducing drugs while watching graphically violent films, conditioning him to become severely ill at the mere thought of violence. As an unintended consequence, the classical music to which these films are set makes it impossible for Alex to listen to them again in the future. All this being forced on Alex, he becomes a victim, and I start to pity and maybe even root for him.

The philosophy of free will and government control is a bit heavy-handed here; it’s clear Burgess is opposed to this form of therapy. Alex is cured, meaning he can no longer perform acts of violence, or even think of them. But the moral characters of the story represent the idea that a man cannot be good without free will. The essence of human nature is to choose to do the right thing.

Let’s for a moment discuss the last chapter of the book, which was cut from the American release, upon which Stanley Kubrick’s film is based. I watched the movie years ago, found it traumatizingly violent, and vowed to never watch it again. Only recently I became aware that the British original version has an extra chapter which changes the entire message of the book, which is why I picked it up.

Spoiler alert: In the last chapter Alex finds himself tired of the ultra-violence and begins to dream of getting a girlfriend and even having a baby at the ripe age of eighteen. Essentially, Burgess explains this last chapter redeems Alex because he begins to grow up, as if maturity is the ultimate cure for evil. Reading the introductory letter from Burgess, it’s clear he’s not really that proud of this story and is sorry it’s what he’s known for. He finds it distasteful that so many people find the violence somehow attractive, particularly Americans.

But I’m left wondering how a youth who assaults, rapes, and murders with joy can grow up to be a healthy member of society. Alex sees himself raising a son who repeats the mistakes of his past, on and on, and unending cycle of teenage boyhood, in an almost reverent daydream. Should we dismiss delinquency this severe for young adults? Is this an example of boys will be boys? As a species, are we caught in a cycle of violence forever? Is this what it means to be human?

This is an exceptionally tough book to read, but I it’s one that will stick with you for a long time, because of the ultra-violence, the language, and the lingering questions about free will, prison reform, torture, redemption, and forgiveness. Only recommended if you think you can stomach the violence.

“Oh it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh. The trombones crunched redgold under my bed, and behind my gulliver the trumpets three-wise silverflamed, and there by the door the timps rolling through my guts and out again crunched like candy thunder. Oh, it was wonder of wonders. And then, a bird of like rarest spun heavenmetal, or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now, came the violin solo above all the other strings, and those strings were like a cage of silk round my bed. Then flute and oboe bored, like worms of like platinum, into the thick thick toffee gold and silver. I was in such bliss, my brothers.”