BOOK CRITICAL: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Updated: Dec 14, 2019
First thing I want to say about reading is that not every book you read is going to be easy to get through. There are going to be books that are hard to read because of content, some because of the writing itself; maybe it’s long-winded or maybe there are too many errors in spelling or grammar or the style is disruptive. I’ve run into all of these things. A Clockwork Orange was difficult to get through for the same reason that it was something I recommend other people read it for: the unique diction and vocabulary of the narrator were both hard to decode and get into, but they also set the culture of the book.
The real horrorshow thing about A Clockwork Orange is how Burgess came up with his own language–slang, used by the main character and his friends and you know it wasn’t the official language because when the narrator spoke to people, such as the police, they didn’t often use the same language as he did. The list of words Burgess created or repurposed is so vast that it might be worth taking a look at if you haven’t before. Apparently, in the first edition of the American publication, they put a glossary in the back of the book and that made Burgess very unhappy. He wanted readers to become completely immersed in the language and the world he’d created. His language was both his strength and his weakness of the book; and that’s what I’m going to talk about today.
Taking a look at the language, the thing that inspired the language looks a bit like Russian phonetics, a cynical outlook (like horrorshow = nice), and some kidspeak (jammiwam = jam, in-and-out = sex). There might be a bit more mixed in there. I saw some German words, some Arabic, but it’s mostly Russian.
The made-up words do wonders to set up the culture the narrator lives in and additionally makes his voice very clear and unique. This is something that lots of authors struggle with, especially early on. Burgess found it very important to immerse the reader in the world he created and that makes the language all the more important to the reader.
But as I picked up the book and started reading, I know I had a hard time knowing what was going on for the longest time because I wasn’t used to the language, the phrasing, and instead, I was drawn out of the world as I tried to decipher what was being said. Nevertheless, I wanted to understand.
One of the things I found very interesting, and I don’t know if it was intended or not, but in the first 40 or so pages there’s a rape; these 14-year-old kids break in and rape an older woman, but due to the language, the rape scene really doesn’t seem as brutal as it probably would have been if he’d used more serious language. Maybe I was distracted trying to figure out exactly what was going on, but the slang brought out the juvenile in each kid involved and rather than thinking of it just as violent, there was a childish air to it, as twisted or wrong as that seems, and that’s very interesting to me. If you’ve read A Clockwork Orange, I’d love to know what you thought about this scene due to the language.
I picked up this book after specifically looking for adult books with a teenager as the main character. I wanted to see how authors handled having youth as main characters in books that weren’t necessarily for youth as I plotted out a novel that would possibly star a youth. Now, since I’ve picked up this book, I’ve since developed away from having the youth be the main character (presently), but I’ve found something else to really adore about the way this book is written and I think it’s something a lot of writers should definitely study: the world-building.
A couple of months back a gentleman in my writing group submitted a piece of a sci-fi novel. One of the things I noticed most with the criticism back is people were having a hard time picturing his world. What things did they have that were like what we had? What was the culture of the planet? Who knew about Earth? Did anybody? Did earth exist in that universe? When creating a world, futuristic, fantasy, anything different than what we know, I think the language is incredibly important to discovering and presenting the culture of that world. I’m also working on a sci-fi novel and one of the things that has really painted the scenes for me is when I’ve come up with new terminology or slang for things that they have in their lives.
How people refer to each other based on where they live shows a relationship. It can show adoration or mocking anger. Dirty slang for dirty jobs versus formal language for the same dirty jobs can show a relation or involvement in that job and the more you create the language, the more you understand the culture you’re creating, the history that exists in this universe, and the way it has or will inspire your characters.
Though A Clockwork Orange is hard to get into (and honestly, I still have to finish it), I highly recommend reading it if you’re world-building. Of course, you don’t have to go as far as Burgess does with your slang. I know mine isn’t quite that extreme, but I think reading it helped my head start to think about how I can use words. I often overthink, “Well what does this mean?” or “What will people even understand if I say it like that?” and reading Burgess told me I don’t need to think about those questions. Using the phrases in context again and again, they’ll make sense and as soon as they click, you’ve got the reader in your world.
You can set the mood, setting, overall feeling of your novel, world, and culture simply by creating words. I’ve also found this is very common in books that feature youths as the main character; they’ll often create dialogue to describe things and that could be very helpful if you’re writing a book with a younger person in it.
Whatever the case, read slang in books, read real slang, and I hope you have fun. I know as I figure out how to write slang and world-build, this has become one of my favorite things about writing.