Monday, 18 August 2008

A Clockwork Orange - Anthony Burgess

It is considered a joke within the literary world just how prodigious Anthony Burgess was during his career. His fecundity yielded all manner of novels, reviews, journalism, orchestral scores, stage productions and pretty much anything else you can think of which requires pen, paper and mind. However, of all these works his 1962 text A Clockwork Orange remains his most well known contribution to the world of literature, a fact which gnawed at his conscience up until his death in 1993.

Burgess started writing the novel after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and told he only had a matter of months to live. Once he was informed of his imminent death he went about writing furiously, the beginning of his vast output of work, owing to his desire to make enough money for his wife to live on once he had died. He ended up living for another thirty years as it turned out, yet no worked defined his life as much as A Clockwork Orange.

The book will always be synonymous with Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film adaptation which lead Burgess to concede that he would be forever known as 'the fountain and origin of a great film', yet he would also dispute the view that Anthony Burgess was a creation of Stanley Kubrick, insisting that the reality was quite the opposite.

The novel, or novella considering its slim size, is often categorised as Science Fiction due to its Dystopian vision but is somehow exempt from this classification when located in bookshops. Sure, the book, like all great Science Fiction, is pertinent to today (gangs, a bumbling Government, a hypocritical Police force) yet one can only imagine that the setting and the bleak vision of the future is merely a foil for the larger themes Burgess presents us. The primary question at the centre of the novel's black heart is asked by the prison chaplain on page 71 and is simply this: 'Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?' Despite its slender appearance this book has got itself some Big Ideas.

One of Burgess' main achievements throughout is his use of language. Alex, the novel's narrator, speaks in a tongue known as Nadsat, a Russian based language which is prevalent amongst the wayward youth of the novel (Burgess wanted readers to have a Russian dictionary at hand when reading). At first challenging, the language is eventually a colourful, playful experience and becomes easier to follow (assuming you get past the first few paragraphs without scrunching your face up with confusion).

Phew. The plot. Alex is a teenager in a broken society in the not-so-distant future. He and his Droogs (his gang) help contribute to this diseased carcass of a society as they rule the night, thieving, fighting and raping their way through the midnight hours. However, Alex is dichotomous at the best of times as he enjoys Beethoven and 'Ultra-violence' in equal measure, leading Burgess to ask the question as to whether High-Art civilizes or not. One beautifully written section sees Alex describing the classical music he is listening to in his room:

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.

Alex, as leader of his fellow Droogs, seems to have an existence which satisfies him greatly. Everything he wants is available to him one way or another and he is in a constant cycle of sating his urges. However, one night he is set up by his gang and is taken to jail where he is told the woman they were sexually assaulting has, in fact, died. He is sentenced to jail where he enjoys reading The Bible (for the sex and violence, the good bits) and seems to be 'getting better'. He then hears of a new medical technique which can cure a man forever of his subversive impulses and offers himself to be a guinea pig. It is known as the Ludovico Technique and, sure enough, he is cured of his violent impulses - whenever he feels the need to inflict pain he grows violently sick.

Soon enough he is let back into society where he is rejected by his parents and society in general. He is taken in by a writer whose wife Alex and his Droogs gang-raped (the writer not able to recognise Alex due to the Elvis mask he wore during the attack). The writer is a political revolutionary, trying to oust the oppressive Government, and feels that Alex can be used as an example of the stifling nature of the Government. However, things don't pan out quite like that, and Alex soon becomes a political pawn in a fragile society.

After a failed suicide attempt, Alex is in hospital and is visited by the Interior Minister, offered a stable job as compensation for the Government's failed experiment. He accepts this deal but is soon found back with a new set of Droogs. It is this last chapter which is omitted from Kubrick's film and has caused much debate since the film's release. For this reader the final chapter is beautifully realised with a pathos which, although incongruous with the rest of the book, is both optimistic and pessimistic at the same time. Unfortunately, I'm not going to tell you all that happens in that final chapter - your just going to have to read it for yourself.

One has to accept that the film will always eclipse the novel. One also has to accept that the film is quite sensational. But we're not talking about the film, we're talking about the book. It is both amazing and frightening to think that Burgess produced such an intelligent book in a matter of weeks due to his thinking that he would soon be dead. The true depth of the novel is hidden amongst the scenes of bloody violence and rampant criminality, yet its message of personal choice and freedom resonate with today's societies like a great bolshy trombone. Its the sort of book you go back to when you get bored with fiction and there are always new things to find within. Despite Burgess' disgruntlement that it was his most famous work, it's not a bad one to be remembered by.

Friday, 1 August 2008

American Psycho - Bret Easton Ellis

It's about time, don't you think?

Abandon all hope ye who enter here is the first line of Bret Easton Ellis' novel American Psycho. It is taken from Dante's epic poem The Divine Comedy where it is inscribed on the gates of hell. Here it is scrawled in red spray paint on a wall in an extension of hell itself - 1980s New York City.

It's protagonist and narrator is Patrick Bateman. Bateman is a Wall Street yuppie of the most cartoonish proportions (sickeningly rich and good-looking in equal measure), yet Ellis doesn't so much throw a spanner in the works as a rusty, bloody chainsaw - Bateman is a psychopath with a thirst for gruesome, vicious murder.

Despite sounding like a distinctly disturbing novel, Ellis is able to put down some truly comic observations of New York City's rich and vacuous. It is that rare thing which authors often find so difficult to achieve; it is both a grotesque yet funny novel, although many female activists didn't, and still don't, see it that way. When it was released the misogynistic content ruffled feminist feathers, to say the least.

The cast of vapid, over-privileged twenty-somethings concern themselves with being seen in the right clubs, the right restaurants and all the while in the right clothes. Any description of another character by Bateman will see him meticulously pick apart the other person's outfit whether it be Gianni Versace, Jean-Paul Gaultier or Louis Vuitton. Appearance is everything, right down to the finest, nauseating and most irrelevant detail. The novel casts a satirical eye over American attitudes in the 1980s, namely mindless consumerism, and picks apart the ultimately pointless, directionless existence of those who like to spend spend spend.

Throughout his body of work Ellis' influences are for all to see. The minimalist modes of Hemingway and Faulkner are rampant in the majority of his novels yet American Psycho throws away the proud simplicity of these literary cornerstones and sees Bateman survey New York with the meticulous eye of a pre-Raphaelite artist. This can often be funny (Bateman describing his latest hi-fi system; laying down his robotic morning routine) but also highly disturbing (the death and sex scenes mercilessly leave nothing to the imagination). In the novel's more stealthier moments, between the blood and the sex, Ellis writes with a sensitivity which is delicate and subtle in its presence. When Bateman and his fiancee leave the social cannibalism of New York and retreat to a friend's beach house for a holiday, Bateman leaves small affectionate notes in her handbag, revealing something resembling a humanity which is otherwise NOT THERE. However, such moments of tenderness are not without the macabre lurking in it's shadow. On the same holiday Bateman finds himself stood over his sleeping wife, ice-pick in hand, gripped by his madness.

Those of you who know me will be all too aware of my feelings towards this book. I often find it amusing myself how highly I rate this novel. At its best it penetrates with an execution one can only marvel at, slack-jawed; at its worse it is one of the sharpest American novels of its time. I have actually judged people solely on their opinion of this novel and have surely lost potential friends for it but those I know who value it don't just like it. You can't just like it. You can't just like Christmas, you can't just like your birthday, you can't just like it when Chelsea lose. The novel gives you something.

To many people it is a punchline to a literary joke. To me it is one of the greatest books I have ever read.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to return some videotapes.