As a punk rocker, I’m all washed up. True, I still listen to Bad Brains and The Clash on an almost-daily basis. Ninety percent of my wardrobe still consists of black T-shirts, jeans, and Chuck Taylors. And even at my depressingly advanced age, I still play guitar in a punk band, albeit a little more slowly than I used to. But at this stage of my life, I’d just as soon listen to ELO as GBH—not to mention the fact that, with my hairline, shaving my head is no longer a fashion statement, but a necessity. And that crap they’re calling punk these days? Mumble mumble grumble.
Honestly, in spite of an antisocial attitude and the occasional mosh-pit injury, I never was much of a hellraiser back in the day. I was always more of a bookish sort of kid. And when I was in my teens and early 20s, flush with the excitement and solidarity that came from being in the punk scene, I tried to read every book I could get my hands on that referred to or was namedropped by punk bands. That meant everything from Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs to William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. (I will admit, however, that I first heard about Kerouac in a 10,000 Maniacs song. Cut me some slack; with a name like that, how was I to know they weren’t punk?)
But harboring a secret fondness for 10,000 Maniacs is not why I became a washed-up punk. It’s because of this: I may be one of the only people in the history of punkitude who never took half a day out of my lousy life to read A Clockwork Orange.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. I picked up Anthony Burgess’ most infamous novel on at least three occasions, the first when I was in high school. Just a few weeks earlier, I’d tried reading James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake on the advice of a sadistic English teacher, and I’d run into the same brick wall with A Clockwork Orange: I could only understand every other fucking word. Rassoodocks? Mesto? Moloko? Veshches? Drencrom? Mozg? And that’s on the first page alone. I’d always considered myself passably smart, but in my youthful impatience and impetuousness, I couldn’t be bothered to decode A Clockwork Orange. Why even try? Back then, I liked my books how I liked my music: Short, simple, and to the point. (Okay, so I mostly read comic books.)
But after I got out of high school and delved deeper into punk, I started seeing A Clockwork Orange everywhere. It was in the costumes of The Adicts, the lyrics of Cock Sparrer, the record art of The Templars. I was able to pick up on these references because I’d done what any self-respecting slacker of my generation would when confronted with a work of literature daring and experimental enough to strain my intellect and sensibilities: I watched the movie instead.
I’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation numerous times, and it’s impossible not to compare it to the book. Still, I wasn’t planning on comparing them—that is, until I opened my copy of the book a week ago and read Burgess’ introduction to the 1986 edition, “A Clockwork Orange Resucked,” in which he rails against his U.S. publisher and Kubrick for printing (and filming) the book minus its final chapter. According to Burgess, the ending was truncated because his “New York publisher believed the 21st chapter was a sellout. […] My book was Kennedyan and accepted the notion of moral progress. What was really wanted was a Nixonian book with no shred of optimism in it.” He does add with grumpy reluctance:
Readers of the 21st chapter must decide for themselves whether it enhances the book they presumably know or is really a discardable limb. I meant the book to end in this way, but my aesthetic judgment may have been faulty. Writers are rarely their own best critics, nor are critics.
In other words: In spite of its complex themes, A Clockwork Orange was meant to shock. And there’s no denying the book is unwholesomely fixated on drugs, rape, and violence. More than that, though—as Burgess hastily points out in his introduction—it’s a book about freedom of choice. More than that, though, it’s a book about growing old, staying young, and what it means to do both.
Sounds kind of corny when you look at it that way—and indeed, A Clockwork Orange is kind of corny. Published in 1962—just after the shoe-banging, West-burying Nikita Khrushchev became the bogeyman of the Cold War—the book is written in a mix of Cockney and Russian, an argot Burgess called Nadsat. There’s a quaint paranoia to that; it surely had sinister undertones at the time. It’s also a far more penetrable language than I used to think. The trick to understanding Nadsat isn’t taking notes or using a glossary, but absorbing the sentences as a whole and letting the context do the talking. I didn’t always understand every weird word right away, but as I got farther into the book, I realized that my confusion was part of the allure, and that the more I came to comprehend Nadsat, the deeper I’d been sucked into the world around it.
But Burgess’ prose isn’t the only thing I had to become acclimated to. His main character, Alex, is a 15-year-old, petty gang-leader in England in the near future, part of a society that seems in the middle of a slow-motion apocalypse. Civilization as we know it still exists, although it feels more like a dead tree that, while standing, is going rotten. Numbed to all human pleasures except those gained by raping, robbing, chugging drug-spiked milk, and listening to his beloved Beethoven, Alex undergoes a series of transformations as he’s jailed and rehabilitated through an experimental procedure, and ultimately regains some shred of his lost humanity.
I’m no prude—far from it—but Jesus, is this book fucked-up. Of course, that shouldn’t surprise me. But I thought that repeated exposure to Kubrick’s unflinching film would have prepared me for all the ultraviolence and “dirty twenty-to-one.” Strangely enough, though, the raping and beating felt far more lurid to me on the page than on the screen. When you watch the film, Kubrick prepackages the visuals for you, and he knows when to stop short, artfully obscure, or even raise the ages of the characters to make things seem slightly less repulsive. But when you read the most brutal parts of the book—for instance, this scene in which Alex brings home a pair of 10-year-old girls, plies them with drinks and drugs, and has his way with them—it forces your poor imagination to fill in the gaps in the picture:
What was actually done that afternoon there is no need to describe, brothers, as you may easily guess all. Those two were unplattied and smecking fit to crack in no time at all, and they thought it the bolshiest fun to viddy old Uncle Alex standing there all nagoy and pan-handled, squirting the hypodermic like some bare doctor, then giving myself the old jab of growling jungle-cat secretions in the rooker. […] I felt the old tigers leap in me and then I leapt on these two young ptitsas. This time they thought nothing fun and stopped creeching with high mirth, and had to submit to the strange and weird desires of Alexander the Large which, what with the Ninth and the hypo jab, were choodessny and zammechat and very demanding, O my brothers.
Burgess, though, loves playing with paradox. Besides the random bits of Shakespearean lingo that pop up in Alex’s otherwise brutish slang, the teenage sociopath dresses down one of his droogs (gang minions) for being “a bastard with no manners and not the dook of an idea how to comport yourself publicwise”—this coming from a monster who has no second thoughts about beating homeless people to a bloody pulp. And then there’s Alex’s perverse adoration of classical music; that love erupts in spurts of hallucinatory poetry that rival the best music writing of Lester Bangs himself:
Then, brothers, it came. Oh, bliss, bliss and heaven. I lay all nagoy to the ceiling, my gulliver on my rookers on the pillow, glazzies closed, rot open in bliss, slooshying the sluice of lovely sounds. Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh. The trombones crunched redgold under my bed, and behind my gulliver the trumpets threewise 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 other strings, and those strings were like a cage of silk around my bed. Then flute and oboe bored, like worms of like platinum, into the thick toffee gold and silver. I was in such bliss, my brothers.
In retrospect, it seems funny that punk rockers co-opted A Clockwork Orange. Depending on your definition of the genre, the book came out either five or 15 years before punk’s genesis, and if anything, it ridicules popular music in all its forms, even the crass, distasteful ones that had yet to be invented. But there’s something about that gang mentality—a tribal bond, really—that clearly correlates to the punk scene, even if Beethoven has even less to do with the subculture than, say, Natalie Merchant. There’s an even bigger argument, though, against A Clockwork Orange being embraced by punks: Its last chapter, the one Kubrick left out of his film, turns the book from a work of grotesque moral distortion into a reactionary, even ham-fisted reassurance of middle-class sentimentality. Yeah, I was shocked, too.
In that final controversial chapter, Alex, who has been cured of getting violently ill whenever he tries to commit an act of violence, at least regains his moral freedom of choice. The previous chapter ends on the same open-ended note as the film, implying that although Alex is now able to make his own decisions once more, he may either backslide or fly right. The implication of Chapter 20’s final line, though, is chilling: “I was cured, all right,” Alex says, and that sentence drips such bitter irony, it feels like Winston’s devastating “I loved Big Brother” at the end of 1984. But in Chapter 21, Alex comes full circle; he’s back at the milk-bar where the story began, running with a new band of droogs, punching some drugged-up patron in the gut, and contemplating his next act of ultraviolence.
Then a chance run-in with a former associate, which, by the way, is a far too convenient plot device Burgess overuses toward the end of the book, shows just how much Alex yearns to get on the straight and narrow, find a job and a wife, and become exactly the kind of upright citizen he just spent a hundred pages knocking the shit out of. The kicker, though, is a photo of a baby that Alex has clipped from the newspaper and keeps in his pocket, indicating that he’s had these stirrings of domesticity for a while. What Alex is really saying here is that youth fades, we all settle down, and even the most rebellious of us succumb to the respectability we once despised:
Yes yes yes, there it was. Youth must go, ah yes. But youth is only being in a way like it might be an animal. No, it is not just like being an animal so much as being like one of those malenky toys you viddy being sold in the streets, like little chellovecks made out of tin and with a spring inside and then a winding handle on the outside and you wind it up grrr grrr grrr and off it itties, like walking, O my brothers. But it itties in a straight line and bangs straight into things bang bang and it cannot help what it is doing. Being young is like being one of these malenky machines.
This is not the ending I signed up for. As Burgess admits in his introduction, the walk-away is entirely optimistic, not just about Alex’s future, but that of the whole human race. Which is why I’m actually glad I waited until I was in my 30s to read A Clockwork Orange. When I was closer to Alex’s age, the last thing I needed was another green light for my bad attitude and nihilistic view of the world. I probably would have thrown the book across the room when I got to the last chapter—not because I couldn’t appreciate a little hope and positivity even back then, but because the ending feels like, as Burgess puts it, a sellout. Then again, I used to get all up in arms about punk bands selling out, whereas now I couldn’t care less. I’m too busy cooking dinner and waiting for my girlfriend to get home so we can watch American Idol. To me, A Clockwork Orange isn’t a political book or a cautionary tale. It’s basically the sound of a formerly rebellious, middle-aged man—Burgess was in his 40s when he wrote it—yelling at all young punks with their weird clothes and crazy slang to get off his lawn. And for that reason, I can totally relate.