Roving Packs of Ferals

I’ve wanted to start writing about the science fiction books that influenced my writing and there’s no better place to start than the book that revised my world and showed me what was possible in fiction.

A Clockwork OrangeA Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this for the first time as a senior in high school and it changed everything for me, as a writer and as a reader. The book is even better decades later.

The first time I read A Clockwork Orange, the edition came with a glossary and I spent a lot of time looking up everything Alex says. This time, without a glossary, I just let the language flow over me — and didn’t have any trouble with it. The context makes things clear after you struggle a brief while.

It was fascinating to reread the story now that I’m so familiar with Kubrick’s movie. Malcolm McDowell is wonderful as Alex, but he was 28 when the movie came out in 1971. In the book, Alex is 15 after he’s charged with murder. I find it much more frightening when he’s a feral child who doesn’t know how to take responsibility for his actions.

The movie also lost the breadth of Alex’s love for music. For a boy who’s bounced between schools and has no adult role models, he’s educated himself on classical music. That detail hints at his potential. I was glad to read in the final chapter that Alex has been rewarded for that musical knowledge with a job that he enjoys.

Spoilers below.

When A Clockwork Orange was originally published in the US, its final chapter was removed. Burgess was furious. In fact, his introduction to this edition is still furious, decades after the cut had been made. This edition was the first time the chapter was restored in this country.

Funnily enough, I’m not sure that the restored final chapter entirely worked for me. It was chilling when the book ended (as the movie does) with “I was cured all right.”

I understand that Burgess wanted to show that Alex could change and grow up, but the author’s numerological explanation (he wrote 21 chapters because 21 is the age of adulthood) falls apart when Alex is only 18 as the book ends. It’s hard for me to believe an 18-year-old craves a son of his own. Alex doesn’t have any sort of epiphany where he suddenly discovers empathy for others. He just grows bored of the violence. Fair enough, but I don’t see how that leads to “I’d better meet girls so I can have a son.”

Influence on my work

Feral packs of teenaged boys appear in the Lorelei books (briefly in As Above, So Below, but moreso in Dies Irae, which hasn’t been published yet) and in The Dangerous Type. Both groups were inspired by Alex and his droogs — and by an experience I had while still living at home.

When I was 19, one of the churches in my hometown hired me to oversee a Dungeons & Dragons game for a bunch of junior high-age boys. We had a great time together. I took them to the video arcade. They showed me Monty Python’s Holy Grail. We played a lot of D&D.

One day — and I don’t even remember how it started — the boys wrestled me down onto the gaming table in the basement of the church. They pinned my arms and legs. One of them began unbuttoning my shirt. And I had the sense that something very, very bad was on the verge of happening.

I was larger than these boys, older, wilier, and had a vicious tongue. None of that mattered when they were acting as a pack. They could have hurt me badly and, while I might have hurt someone of them in return, I couldn’t have fended them all off.

It helped that they didn’t know better than to meet my eyes. I stared at each of them in turn, furious and disappointed in them, and they were young enough to be embarrassed and to let me go.

The moment happened so many years ago, but still I can feel myself on my back in a church basement, waiting for something terrible to happen and almost powerless to stop it. So both Lorelei and Raena have had to face those feral boys in my stead.

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