The Filaments of Fiction: Jenni Fagan on A Clockwork Orange

Picture this — a 15 year-old girl is in a tiny bedroom. There are twelve other identical bedrooms outside her door. She angles a standard issue social work bed diagonally across her room to disrupt the aesthetic uniformity of this children’s care home. There is a stack of books in the corner. A lot of those books are on the occult or science. She is smoking. The window is open. The staff can be heard chatting downstairs. The kids in this unit do not use official titles for the ‘care workers’, they are just ‘the staff’ a collective presence that comes and goes. The kids do not go home at the end of each day. Especially not this one. The girl is wearing Doc Marten boots. She is reading A Clockwork Orange.

On the last few pages the girl finds her body colluding with the text. There is a low feeling of electricity coming off the page. Momentum gathers toward the part of A Clockwork Orange that is somehow the most shocking — the protagnist Alex — who has committed heinous violence and been dealt with in the most brutal and futuristic manner — is the exact same age as her.

The girl puts down the book.

She has been altered.

A Clockwork Orange attached itself to my fifteen-year old life and delivered a series of electronic volts.

I am that girl, who later grew up and became a published novelist and poet. It takes a lot to shock me in real life and also in literature. I have lived through so many extreme circumstances that I am extraordinarily hard to impress in that way. A Clockwork Orange attached itself to my fifteen-year old life and delivered a series of electronic volts not dissimilar to those experienced by Alex, when he goes through his rehabilitation process.

The first part of the book sees Alex as leader of a gang of droogs — teenage criminals. His cronies comprised of Dim, Pete and Georgie. They drink drug-laced milk in the Korova Milk bar and another establishment called the Duke of New York.

The droogs speak to each other in a slang language called nadsat. A Clockwork Orange‘s slang dialect steals elements of Russian and Cockney English. I loved the unfamiliarity of nadsat. As I began to read A Clockwork Orange I had the amazing realisation that I could understand everything these boys said in nadsat. It was my first experience of discovering dialogue that was not in straight English but could still be understood by anyone. As a young Scottish girl who was not taught how to write in Scottish dialect, or use the spellings of my own dyadic working-class tongue — this particular experience would prove pivotal when I sat down to write my first fiction novel some years later.

Alex defies convention at every turn. He listens to Classical music, loudly, a lot. He likes to read the Bible. He is an unlikeable protagonist who relishes the disgust he generates. His penchant for violence is underlined by an absolute lack of remorse. He is undaunted by State and society — he merely tolerates what he considers to be the idiocy of adults.

His rehabilitation process in prison is Ludovico’s technique and it is so successful that Alex is released from prison after two years. He can’t see violence anymore without becoming physically sick. He is immobilised by rehabilitive conditioning. He can’t listen to classical music anymore as he associates it with his prior violent history. He has been declawed and sent out into a world as a harmless and defenceless citizen.

Revenge is visited upon Alex by Dim and Billy boy who have become police officers. They beat him brutally. Alex tries to get help and comes across the husband of the woman who had died from injuries the droogs inflicted years earlier. The man is a political dissident. Alex goes through final stages of torment being used as a tool against the State and by them. Finally he wants to have a normal life with a wife and family.

I loathed Alex.

I was utterly compelled to read his story.

I found the black and white nature of Burgess’s approach to the moral nature of violent teenagers claustrophobic and repellent. The unrepentent portrayal of a young psychopath was also extraordinarily powerful.

I was a teenager who had experience of the world Burgess wrote about and I was still living in it when I read this book. I did not feel intimidated by Burgess’s vision. It irritated me. It frustrated me. It got under my skin. I was impressed.

A Clockwork Orange generated a multiplicity of responses in me as a reader. I left this novel expecting a higher standard both in my own writing, which I did every day even then and also in any dystopian books I would read in the future.

A Clockwork Orange marries its futuristic dystopian narrative with identifiable issues from modern society to devastating affect.

It was the first novel of its kind to affect my vision as a reader and more importantly for me, as a writer. When I wrote The Panopticon years later, it was a book that was still vaguely on my mind.

 

PIECE PUBLISHED in UNBOUND WORLDS – http://www.unboundworlds.com