Monthly Archives: January 2014

Throwback Thursday! A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess

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Welcome to the first of what I hope to be a regular blog feature in which I post on a Thursday – geddit – and, in the typical vein of ‘Throwback Thursday’ on social networking sites (#TBT), look at books I read in the past. So I’m kicking this off with a particularly memorable book for me: Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. I apologise now if this blog post is super long, but I really love writing about this book. I won’t include any major spoilers, so feel free to read through and maybe give the book a try if you like what you see!

If someone asked me ‘what’s your favourite book?’ there’s no way I would come to a quick answer. But out of all the books I’ve read and all of the ones that have stuck in my mind, I’ve got to say – A Clockwork Orange has come the closest. In fact, I probably would describe it as my favourite book – combining a dystopian future (a particular fiction love of mine) with literature’s most repellent anti-hero, creating one of the most morally ambiguous, screwed-up storylines I’ve ever seen on the page.

I’d sum it up like this (spoiler-free! I think): Alex, an intelligent 15-year-old boy with a love of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, is the head of a gang in a dystopian world of ‘ultra-violence’. He and his ‘droogs’ (friends) stroll around beating and raping the majority of people they come across. His parents seem downright terrified of him and he is eventually betrayed by his gang and nicked by the police. In an attempt to skip the prison sentence, he volunteers to be the subject of a new form of psychotherapy that promises to correct his violent ways. After lengthy psychological torture and conditioning from the government, he comes out unable to commit an act of violence (no matter how much he wants to), but struggles to cope with the side effects and as a result becomes a victim to almost everyone around him (including his parents, the police, and his old gang). As the book continues and he loses his free will entirely, the reader is constantly left with the moral dilemma of siding with the free, violent Alex, or the conditioned, victimised, ‘safe’ Alex. Oh, and did I mention it’s written in a made-up language? Well, it’s written in a made-up language.

‘Hang on!’ I hear you cry. ‘How can it be written in a made-up language?’ Well, not every word is supplemented with something made-up by Burgess, but it reads more as an extreme version of teenage slang. While it’s difficult to grasp at first, as the novella progresses you begin to pick up on what the words mean until, by the end, you are virtually fluent in it and barely notice it’s there (although I believe American audiences were given a glossary, which takes away the fun slightly). It’s often remarked that this effect is ‘brainwashing’ – particularly interesting to think about when we witness the brainwashing the main character goes through and the negative effects it has on his life.

Burgess was inspired to write the novel after a series of incidences – the most upsetting being that his wife was beaten and raped by four men during the Second World War. It is strange that he chose to relive that experience in the novel through the perspective of the attackers – and stranger still that the woman attacked by Alex and his friends was the wife of an author who was writing a book called A Clockwork Orange. However, a big theme in the book is the effect of youth culture in society – which was definitely influenced by the emergence of youth culture in the fifties and sixties (such as the teddy boys, and later on the Mods and Rockers). Alex and his friends are constantly trying out bizarre new fashions and challenging rival gangs in the streets. The direct contrast between Alex’s intellectual interests and his complete lack of moral decency was inspired by Burgess’s observation of Russian teens, whose violence contrasted with their polite and gentlemanly manners, and it makes for very interesting characters (not to mention that the language it’s written in, ‘nadsat’, was based on Russian).

I gave this to my sister to read and when she finished she said that she’d never been so disturbed reading a book. I don’t know if it’s because I was near the end of my English degree at the time I read it, but I didn’t have that feeling (if there’s one thing you get used to during a Lit. degree, it’s death, violence, and generally disturbing topics). Given that I’ve told you it’s probably my favourite book… well, I’m not sure what that says about me, but there you go.

I won’t tell you what happens in the last chapter, but the book was split into twenty-one chapters as it’s largely about Alex maturing into adulthood, and Burgess believed that twenty-one was the age that a young person hit maturity. The twentieth chapter has its own sort of ending (again, won’t tell you the details) which finishes on quite a different note to the twenty-first, but in the American edition, the twenty-first chapter was removed for that very reason. It was believed that the final chapter had an ending that was too unbelievable in comparison to the twentieth, but the change made Burgess deeply unhappy, especially as it ruined the structural pattern he created for the novel and the significance of twenty-one – and the film did nothing to improve things (more on that later). I much prefer the twenty-first chapter, which ends on a morally high note – I won’t say too much but you leave the twenty-first chapter feeling hopeful (even if it is slightly implausible). Both endings, however, end ‘happily’, albeit in very different ways.

Why a ‘clockwork orange’? The title of the book has been debated, but there are all sorts of theories about it: mainly the idea of taking something natural (an orange) and wiring it up so it becomes something mechanical and unnatural (reflecting the treatment and conditioning that Alex received). Burgess spent time in Malaya in the fifties and became fluent in Malay; incidentally, the Malay word for man is ‘orang’ (incorporated into the word orangutan, meaning man of the forest). Could be a coincidence, but unlikely. The classic book cover supports this, depicting who we assume is Alex with a clockwork eye – though the film adaptation took this image and chose instead to turn it into part of his surreal youth fashion, with Alex sporting spiky make-up around his eye. Speaking of…

If we’re talking about A Clockwork Orange, there’s something we HAVE to discuss. And that’s the film.

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Almost a decade after the book was released, Stanley Kubrick would buy the rights to Burgess’s novel and turn it into one of the most well-known and iconic films of all time. The image of Malcolm McDowell’s Alex in his bowler hat and heavily-mascaraed right eye, not to mention the white braces and glass of milk, would forever be recognisable (and makes for a pretty good Halloween costume – trust me on that.) This is a film you HAVE to see before you die – it’s common knowledge. That said, and with all my love for the novel expressed… I haven’t seen it yet.

I have a difficult enough time with book-to-film adaptations, but the ones that the authors have bad relationships with are particularly hard to watch. Burgess’s attitude towards Kubrick’s interpretation of what he perceived to be one of his less-interesting novels was very bad indeed, even though he initially praised the adaptation. The short answer is that he probably sold it for peanuts, and resented the success and iconic status it quickly developed – I don’t think he expected a novel he wasn’t the most proud of to become his most well-known work. Indeed, nowadays not a lot of people even know it was based on a book, which says a lot about Kubrick’s stamp on it. But even with this added publicity for Burgess at the time, the idea of labouring for years over a storyline and characters and to see it, in your eyes, butchered on screen must be particularly horrible. One of the most famous scenes is when Alex, during the rape of the author’s wife, starts to sing Singin’ in the Rain; this was lauded as a genius move by many critics but pissed off Burgess and, supposedly, Gene Kelly (the star of Singin’ in the Rain) – who was completely disgusted and snubbed McDowell at a party. Some critics responded to the film as being one that glorified violence, which led Burgess to feel his work was being misunderstood, particularly as the film was based on the abridged American edition with the missing chapter at the end. In an effort to redeem the story, Burgess actually put on a stage adaptation that was more along the lines of the book which included obvious digs at Kubrick (I remember reading that at one point a character who looked a lot like Kubrick came on stage playing Singin’ in the Rain on a flute, before promptly being kicked off), but it didn’t have quite the same lasting impression as the film.

Despite the fact I imagine it to be a very disturbing watch, this is a film that I NEED to see. For one, I have a secret love for the young Malcolm McDowell – although that might disappear once super-violent Alex walks on to my screen. McDowell starred in Lindsay Anderson’s If…. – a very odd film about British public schoolboys starting up a revolution. (The sixties were a weird time for film.) I watched it two or three years ago but there’s one scene that sticks in my mind, in which the boys take it in turns to head into the school gym and be caned by their teachers. McDowell’s character (Mick) is last – if I remember correctly – and in an act of defiance, he throws open the doors to the gym with the most maniacal smile on his face. Supposedly when McDowell was cast in A Clockwork Orange he turned to If…. director Lindsay Anderson for advice, who pointed at that particular scene, at that particular moment, and said ‘that there… that’s Alex.’ Considering how well I remember that scene, and how mesmerising McDowell was at that moment, it’s pretty shameful, actually, that I haven’t seen A Clockwork Orange yet.

I think I will see it eventually but (as pathetic as it sounds) I need to prepare myself mentally, make it an event. I’ve actually seen clips of it during its constant re-runs on ITV2 and from the few scenes I did see, it seemed they toned the violence down a bit – though I didn’t see the Singin’ in the Rain scene so I’m not sure if I just caught a few good bits. I suppose one of the reasons for my resistance is that I think the language of the novel is so clever at creating violent images in the readers’ minds that they partially have to construct themselves (particularly at the beginning when the language is completely unfamiliar, so when the violence is being described, all you’ve got is your best guess), and I can’t help but wonder if this effect loses its spark when it’s played out on screen. But it made its mark and will forever be remembered, so it needs to be seen to be discussed properly. One day I’ll report back when I’ve seen it. But until then… I’ve got the book!

To finish with, my Goodreads review: A Clockwork Orange gets the full whack from me. Five stars. I know many people will disagree with this, and Burgess himself would DEFINITELY disagree, but I consider it a literary masterpiece. Oh, and just in case you were curious about that Halloween costume…

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey

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I’ve got to be honest here – I’m not sure I like American fiction. I don’t really know what it is about it, but it doesn’t hit me the same way fiction from other countries does. That really isn’t a reflection on all American literature, and I’m probably generalising vastly, so take that with a pinch of salt. It might be that I can’t relate to the language and slang the same way I can to British fiction, or it might be that I’m reading the wrong kind – either way, I was less impressed than I thought I would be with Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and that could be a reason why.

I’ve been long familiar with the storyline of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, partly because of the multi-Oscar-winning film produced by a young Michael Douglas, and partly because it’s just one of those stories that’s talked about for its ending and its entire plot, not just the premise. If you don’t know the outcome and would like to avoid spoilers, I recommend you avoid this blog post as I’m not quite sure how to discuss the book without discussing the ending. In fact, it didn’t feel like much happened in it UNTIL the ending, and even that felt a bit rushed. So if you know the ending or don’t mind finding it out, let’s take a look at the book itself.

The story is told through the eyes of a seemingly mute and deaf half-‘Indian’ (Native American) Chief who is a patient in a mental institution held under the oppressive regime of a matriarchal nurse. He’s not actually deaf, or he wouldn’t have much of a story to tell, but everyone believes he is and so he spends his days being ignored and never saying a word. One day, a swaggering, fun-loving man is admitted, feigning madness to gain entry and cause trouble, aiming to rouse the patients into a rebellion. Throughout the relatively short novel, McMurphy (the rebel patient) witnesses what life is like under the tyrannical rule of Nurse Ratched and aspires to overthrow her. McMurphy is our protagonist, but we all know how it ends – McMurphy’s spirit is crushed and he eventually receives a lobotomy, a neurosurgical procedure that seems to virtually wipe the personality from the person receiving it.

I know what I expected here: steady mental decline, the nurse coming down with an iron fist, McMurphy getting gradually more powerless as the psychology of dictatorship comes into play. If that’s what was in the novel, I feel like I missed it. Throughout the vast majority of the story, McMurphy only endures very minor setbacks, and at times when you think his personality is beginning to change, he comes through stronger than ever. In fact, only in the last fifty pages or so does it feel like there is any story at all, and McMurphy’s punishment comes around so quickly and seems so out of character that it’s difficult to follow – not exactly the unstable rebellion I was expecting. Nurse Ratched did not have the threatening presence I thought she would have, although her damaging effect on the other patients was clear.

The novel is a classic, so I can’t help but doubt my own perception as a reader by disliking it or not feeling the emotions that I expected to feel. On Goodreads (and we know how much I love Goodreads!) it has an average star rating of 4.16, which is exceptionally good compared to many other average ratings. If I cast my eye over the reviews, everyone seems to have taken from it what I so desperately wanted to – the anguish upon reading about an individual’s struggle against the system. McMurphy is hailed as one of the best characters in literature (he certainly is a character and a half, so I’ll accept that). But finishing it feels a bit like when you read a novel at school and would scratch your head and say ‘huh?’ while your teacher waxed lyrical about how it was one of the most important novels of its era. You know the feeling. As an English Literature grad and a lover of books I refuse to accept that it’s just me being dumb, and missing the subtleties at work.

I was also pretty irked by the constant grammatical errors, which apparently made it through the editing process (and, I presume, were considered so integral to the original novel that they were never corrected in later editions). Kesey commonly uses ‘could of’ / ‘should of’ / ‘would of’ etc. in his narration (a lot of people defend grammar errors in fiction when they are being said by characters, which is understandable, but I don’t think ‘could of’ is a worthy exception, given that ‘could of’ and ‘could’ve’ sound virtually the same – which is why the error exists in the first place, I expect). I’ve never seen grammatical errors in a book before, and it made me very uncomfortable to find so many in a Penguin edition of a classic piece of literature.

This all sounds very negative, but I do consider it a good book, just not a great one. I liked the writing style very much, with Chief Bromden’s reflections on his past with his Native American father beautifully written, but I suppose I needed to see it on screen to truly appreciate it. With that in mind, let’s look now at the aforementioned Oscar-winning movie.

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The film actually redeemed the book slightly, in my eyes. It was a pretty good film all round, and a very faithful adaptation to boot (although Kesey notoriously hated it). Jack Nicholson was perfect in the role of McMurphy and in many ways carried the film on his shoulders, but I think that all of the patients were well-cast and shone in their roles, making each character unique and convincing while trapped in the asylum. The only character I felt was badly-cast was Nurse Ratched – Louise Fletcher did bring an icy presence to the role, but it didn’t feel right for the character, somehow. Her soft voice and slight frame made the ‘Big Nurse’ seem more like an exasperated worker who was sympathetic to her patients’ needs, not the tyrannical dictator who knew how to psychologically play each man from the novel. Without the narration from Chief Bromden, it was difficult to see exactly how she was affecting them. I noticed that the film did the editing that the book needed – the dramatic events taking place at the end of the novel happened much, much sooner in the film and were spaced out well. Without the need for everything to be in Bromden’s eyes, we learnt much more about McMurphy’s state of mind and, crucially, the psychological torture he underwent (such as the electro-shock therapy).

So, to finish with: my Goodreads review. Sorry, Ken, but I gave this one three stars – a respectable rating, but nothing incredible. I think my expectations were just too high on this one.

[Coming next: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton]

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White Teeth – Zadie Smith

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[Note: spoilers ahead! I do mention the ending in this blog post, but I provide warning before discussing it specifically.]

White Teeth was on my to-read list for a long time. The book was published back in 2000, and I always had a vague awareness of Zadie Smith being this amazing young British novelist who was on everyone’s radars, but I didn’t actually pick up her debut novel until quite recently. I actually read her latest, NW, before I read this – NW is one of those books that constantly challenges conventional style and narrative structure, so reading it by the pool as a casual holiday read was pretty interesting, to say the least. White Teeth, however, is a much simpler (but no less rewarding) read that follows two families across two generations (and occasionally three or four, if we’re counting flashbacks).

I always remember my Aunty Janet talking about White Teeth and saying: ‘it’s amazing that she [Smith] was so young when she wrote it, yet so wise.’ I’ve always both admired and envied that idea, considering I’m writing a book now in my early twenties – which will probably turn out to be the least wise thing you could ever read. After reading White Teeth, I’m full of more admiration and envy than ever before. Smith supposedly finished the novel during her last year at university (Cambridge, which partly explains the wisdom, I suppose) and would have been 24 or 25 when it was published in its complete form, but the book definitely has a much more mature feel to it. That seems to be a bit of a theme for me at the moment – I’m currently reading Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, which won the Man Booker prize last year and made her the youngest Booker winner ever at 28 – again, it’s astonishing to read it and think that a 28-year-old wrote such a profound plot with such historical accuracy. But more on that another time! Back to White Teeth.

It’s difficult to pinpoint one protagonist – at the start, the novel follows Archibald ‘Archie’ Jones and his friend Samad Miah Iqbal in the early seventies, old friends who marry their wives in North West London, Clara and Alsana respectively. As the novel progresses, we learn about their early lives in the war together and their future lives with their children: Archie and Clara with a daughter, Irie, who becomes the novel’s later protagonist, and Samad and Alsana with identical twin sons, Magid and Millat. If you look at Smith’s early life, you can see that Irie was perhaps a semi-autobiographical character: both were born in 1975 in North London to a Jamaican mother and English father; both struggled with weight and the pressures of appearance. I don’t know how much of Irie’s academic struggles and love life are true to Smith’s, but she certainly manages to capture the insecurities of a mixed-race teenage girl in the nineties the way only someone who experienced it first-hand could.

I love books that span years and generations (one of my favourites is Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which I’m sure I’ll blog about at some point) so this was right up my street. There’s something quite leisurely about these kind of books, like you can take your time reading them and they don’t wear thin. I definitely took my time reading White Teeth, and it’s not a short novel by any standards (500 pages or so) so it felt that by the time I reached the end, a lot of the earlier events felt like distant memories. I also liked the way different characters took the hotseat when it came to narration; although it’s not narrated in first person, we look at different events through different perspectives and it paints a very colourful picture. The writing is smart and witty, although I’ve spotted some readers mention on the internet that it often feels like Smith dislikes her readers. I didn’t get that impression when I read the book but I can recall parts that became slightly preachy, perhaps, or tell instead of the show the readers certain incidents (a common writing no-no, and one I am always painfully aware of when writing fiction, although it can be acceptable in certain circumstances). Still, no book is perfect, and you can’t expect glowing reviews all around.

But for all its simple and accurate depiction of life in North West London, White Teeth had some strange and occasionally disturbing moments. What freaked me out the most? The ending. And it is here I say look away now if you have any intention of reading the novel (which I do recommend). So close your eyes and skip to the next paragraph! Spoilers below…

What happens when you have sex with identical twins on the same night (not together! Bleurgh) and fall pregnant? Whose baby is it? Irie faces this very conundrum and laments that no DNA test in the world would be able to tell her who the father is, given that both boys have identical genes. This idea horrified me, even though it is presented as a real emotional freedom for Irie; she gets to choose who the father is and doesn’t feel any underlying guilt about telling the wrong one, simply because she isn’t sure who the wrong one is. It did throw up some stranger complex issues that I tried to get my head around – does this mean all identical twins are somehow also the parents of their sibling’s offspring, if we see genetic inheritance as a big part of biological parenthood? Does Irie’s baby, in a sense, belong to both Magid and Millat? Plus, given that she is infatuated with one twin (who doesn’t reciprocate her love and would probably make a terrible dad) yet the other twin is smart and mature, you’re genuinely unsure who she will pick. In the end, a confusing flash-forward tells us that she doesn’t actually choose but prefers to keep her daughter’s father anonymous, although we are not given much time to dwell on this before the novel ends.

White Teeth doesn’t have a film adaptation as far as I can tell, but Channel 4 did adapt it into a four-part TV drama starring Naomie Harris and an unexpected early performance from James McAvoy (this is pre-Shameless, even). It aired back in 2002 but it’s still in 4OD’s archive and available to watch online. I haven’t had a chance to catch it yet but I’ve heard it’s very good, although I think they gloss up some of the characters for TV viewing purposes. I also notice from the poster, which you can see below, that the focus might be slightly different – Josh, the character James McAvoy played, was very minor compared to the twins Magid and Millat (both played by Jacob Scipio), yet it is McAvoy who’s on the poster, which makes me wonder if he has much more to do with the television plot than the one from the book. It’s interesting that 4OD considers it a comedy – while it was funny in places and maybe had some very stereotypically comedic characters, I didn’t read it as a comedy, more of a drama. I’ll be interested to find out if the adaptation did turn it more into a comedy, or if it kept its dramatic roots.

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There’s an app called Goodreads where you can log every book you’ve read and give it a star rating (and a review, if you fancy), so I thought it would be a cool idea to end all of these blog posts with the star rating I’ve given the book on Goodreads. I’m quite fussy with my five stars but White Teeth was one I planted all five on. When a book can cover an Englishman’s experience in the war with the same emotional depth and detail as a young mixed-race girl’s experience in North London in the nineties, it feels pretty deserving. I’ve heard Smith’s writing a sci-fi novel soon, which excites me beyond belief – I can’t wait to see her turn her hand and her beautiful prose style to the more fantastical and unpredictable plots that often occupy sci-fi books. No doubt I’ll be discussing it here, so watch this space!

[Coming next: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey]

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