“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 three-wise 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 the other strings, and those strings were like a cage of silk around my bed. Then the flute and oboe bored, like worms of platinum, into the thick thick toffee gold and silver. I was in such bliss, my brothers.” (A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.)
Burgess disavowed A Clockwork Orange and claimed it was the least favorite of his works, a youthful mistake. And, in spite of being widely considered one of the greatest books ever written, I almost agree with him. It’s a thin allegory with a philosophic puzzle at its core: if a man can’t choose to be good, is he really good, really a man at all? As interesting (and even relevant) as this question may be, this work would be next to nothing if it were written in straightforward, insipid prose. Yet, the above paragraph where our humble narrator is listening to a violin concerto by Plautus transcends any thinly veiled allegory. Every time I read that description of music, I am in bliss, oh my brothers.
Burgess builds up to these grand linguistic feats by constructing his vocabulary piece by piece. First, we learn the body parts, gulliver, rooker, and rot (head, arms, and mouth), and they become descriptive not of those parts at any time, but of the heads and mouths of ultra-violent teenagers living in a time where any brutality is accepted in youths. Through trial and error (for nothing is explained), we learn adjectives like horrorshow and starry by their sounds and placement in the sentence. Then we accept the abbreviations and the narrator’s reference to us as brothers, as if we participate and affirm his violence. And with those basic rules established, Burgess allows himself to combine words and phrases into new, yet coherent, images however and wherever he chooses. The resulting language evokes a clear picture of a violent, desperate future without needing one real description of its culture or politics.
Recommended Action: Buy – Borrow – TBR – Avoid
Length: 213 pgs
Ending: not quite redeeming, but hopeful
Further reading: In terms of language, A Clockwork Orange reminded me of Feed by M. T. Anderson, another work where the author makes up the popular language of teenagers to better portray their world and characters.