Thursday, December 25, 2008

Clockwork Orang[e]

I managed to get a degree in English lit a generation ago without ever reading A Clockwork Orange. Not my cup of tea at all: Bleak, bleaker, bleakest. The ghastly story of ultraviolent, amoral Alex and his droogs, Alex's remedial treatment and its aftermath has simply no hope at all (or does it?). You might think that it would be exceedingly disturbing to listen to, as I think most books have increased power when they are read aloud. But, in fact, this audio version -- read by Tom Hollander -- creates a certain amount of distance, while increasing the book's accessibility.

The novel, by Anthony Burgess, introduces us to Alex as he heads out on an all-night rampage of battery, grand theft auto, gang rape and property damage. The next day, we learn of his intense love for classical music. Shortly afterwards, Alex lands in prison as he is caught burglarizing and terrorizing an old lady -- who dies following Alex's assault. After two years incarceration, he takes advantage of the opportunity for a cure (and a release from prison), which turns out to be chemical aversion therapy -- his favorite music accompanies movies of extreme violence, while the drugs in his system induce nausea. Within two weeks, Alex can't think of violence or hear his music without feeling debilitatingly ill. He is "cured" and released from prison. On the outside, he quickly becomes a poster boy for those protesting the fascistic regime that implemented the therapy, and the procedure is reversed. Alex goes back to his violent ways, but is he older and wiser ... putting his youth behind him?

According to the introduction that begins this audiobook, the final "uplifting" chapter of the book -- where Alex begins to rethink his path -- was eliminated for the initial U.S. publication of the book ... and the Stanley Kubrick movie. As a first-time reader/listener, I'm not sure I found that final chapter to be all that positive. Alex talks about changing, but since he's the ultimate in the unreliable narrator, can you believe him?

Anyone familiar with the novel will know that Alex narrates in "nadsat," a teen slang that is evidently based on both Cockney dialect and Russian. I simply can't imagine trying to read this book -- constantly parsing the language while trying to piece out the plot would likely have defeated me early on. But having Tom Hollander read it meant that I didn't have to do the parsing. I just had to think a moment about context and let the story happen. If there was a precise definition that I had missed, I could easily get the gist in the rest of the sentence or paragraph. Here's a case where I think an audiobook can make a classic of literature accessible for more readers.

But in addition to easing the transition into nadsat, Hollander just does a terrific reading. He inhabits Alex in all his teenage self-absorption and sense of entitlement, in his casual descriptions of the ultraviolence and mayhem, in his complete lack of conscience. He drawls Alex's general sense of boredom, finds humor in his irony, and ultimately his terror at his helplessness once he's "cured." There's even the occasional Bronx cheer (which is called something else in the novel).

Hollander also plays the other characters in the novel -- all from Alex's viewpoint. So the prison officials are nasally snobs, his mother an ineffectual whisperer, his victims all high-pitched and querulous, and his droogs dense and insensible. I found it quite a bravura performance, but it seemed to be delivered with Alex's nonchalance.

This audiobook includes an entire disc devoted to excerpts of Burgess reading the novel in the 1960s (?). Burgess reads with flair and enthusiasm, but without Hollander's skill at creating and sustaining characters. It seemed clear that Hollander listened to a little (or a lot) of Burgess when creating his version because the pronunciation of the nadsat was exactly alike. The audiobook didn't need this extra disc, of course, and I'm sure that most teen listeners will give it a complete pass; but it was nicely produced: All the other discs were black, while the Burgess disc matched the orange of the strip on the cover.

Like another classic of that part of the 20th century, On the Road, I'm truly glad that listening provided me with the opportunity to know it. Because I sure wouldn't be reading either of these.

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