Four star review, originally posted here on January 27, 2021.
Well holy cow this book was violent!
Reading this felt like trying to read Shakespeare. It’s kinda technically in English, but not quite. And so I spent a lot of time, especially at the beginning, not quite understanding what was happening, or coming up with my best guess. I didn’t know going in to this book that part of what supposedly makes it so remarkable is that Burgess basically makes up an entire new language of street slang in which our protagonist narrates. I struggled through several chapters before finally looking up a glossary. I felt bad about this, because I soon therafter read that Burgess was adamently against having glossaries included in publications fo this work since he wants people to go through the process of learning the language as we go (which he called “brainwashing.”) After learning that I tried to avoid the glossary for the rest of my reading journey, and that seemed to work fine. I could certainly understand a reader getting so fed up and frustrated at the start that they just give up on the book, though.
For me, this murky understanding of the language gave the book, especially the first section, a dreamlike feel. Like I think I could mostly maybe make out what was happening, but I couldn’t tell if it was real or if I was dreaming it up all wrong. I’m presuming this was intentional. The beginning of this book is (I think?!) ULTRA violent. Like CRAAAAZY violent. You’re reading this weird text, trying to figure out that’s happening, and going “Wait… are they attacking this random guy?” “Wait, is there an opera singer in a pub? And this time we’re NOT attacking her?” “Wait… did he just groom and rape two 10 year olds? Jeeesus.” It is very difficult to believe that someone could be not only this evil and uncaring, but also so nonchalant about the whole thing. It forced me as a reader to question my own understanding of Burgess’ world, as well as my own understanding as a reader. And it certainly drew me in.
I’m surprised this book never came up as suggested reading at any point during my criminology/ criminal justice education (the same way we were told to watch Minority Report). It does a decent job grappling with the ideas of morality in crime prevention, violent police culture, government overreach, personal liberties, effects of crime victimization, rehabilitation, juvenile justice, etc. So I appreciated all of that.
Finally, I re-watched the movie (which I’ve only seen once I think, and probably over a decade or two ago) after I finished the book, and I’ve got to say… while most of it tracked very closely with the book (particularly the dialogue), and there were lots os truly visually stunning elements, I think it didn’t capture a couple essential elements of the book. Specifically: age. Malcolm McDowell was 28 years old playing the lead, but the character was only I believe 15 years old. That’s a HUGE difference. Look at any real 15 year old; 15 year olds are children. They are developing. To me part of what made the book so effective was thinking about our protagonist and his droods as out of control youths. Along the same lines, to me the most disturbing scene in the entire book is when he skips school, then picks up two little girls at a record shop, takes them out for milkshakes, then molests them back in his apartment. It was so gross and terrible and disturbing and really drives home the extremity of out narrator’s evil. But in the movie this scene was replaced by a totally consensual threesome with seemingly of-age young women. The movie makes our hero seem more relatable, just a lad out for some fun, boys will be boys and whatnot.
Back to the book: It was challenging, disturbing, and certainly not for everybody. But I liked it.