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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

October Reads

A list of the books I read and what I thought of them.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

This 1962 ninth novel by British writer, composer, and linguist Anthony Burgess is a dystopian satirical black comedy that explores themes of violence, free will, and the meaning of humanity. Set sometime in the near future, in an undisclosed city, the novel follows a teenager named Alex, a boy who heads a vicious gang whose goal is to unleash unrelenting violence towards the most unsuspecting and vulnerable population. Empowered by the “milk-plus” they imbibe at the local Korova Milk Bar, the boys embark on nights of unmitigated violence: attacking homeless people, ransacking convenient stores and brutalizing the workers, and creating ruses to invade houses to assault and rob the homeowners. Alex, whose malice is counterweighted by his love for classical music, seems impervious to discipline, reprimand, and he consistently evades punishment, that is until one nightly ruse ends in an inadvertent death; Alex is caught, convicted of murder, and sentenced to fourteen years in prison. There, Alex is selected for experimental type of behavior modification treatment: the Ludovico technique. Alex is injected with sick-inducing medication and forced to endure films of horrific violence, the aim being to condition him into illness at even the mere thought of violence. Subjected to the treatment for several years, eventually Alex is released and returns to the outside world, which he finds has completely changed: his friends have all grown up, taken careers and wives, and his parents have all but abandoned him. But Alex is soon taken in by a group of vigilantes set on protesting against the treatment which he has experienced, but, grappling with adjustment and the trauma instilled during his imprisonment, Alex soon finds that his problems are far from over.

Long hailed as a classic, its reputation and widespread readership doubtless bolstered by the Kubrick film adaptation that arrived eight years after the publication of the book, A Clockwork Orange remains a name that invokes a sense of violence, obscurity, and dystopian imagination. The book is included in numerous “greatest novel” lists, and it’s garnered somewhat of a cult following over the decades. And the reasons for that, I discovered as I was reading, are numerous. Firstly, it’s a novel unlike most I’ve ever read, not simply in its content, but its form. Those familiar already know, but for the novel, Anthony Burgess invented his own argot language, or cryptolect, called Nadsat. Over two hundred individual words with Russian roots appear across the length of the novel, which only greater increases the disorientation instilled in its content by the characters, setting, and plot. Initially, I found it off-putting but slowly I grew to really enjoy it. I printed out a glossary which I kept folded inside the back cover, and that absolutely helped; however, once you reach the halfway mark of the book, you can recognize and decipher the Nadsat on your own, or at least, I found that to be the case. Burgess’s argot language, for me, called to mind the work of Joyce, especially Finnegan’s Wake; but the more I read, the more I began see other affinities with Joyce. A Clockwork Orange is a bildungsroman of sorts–it follows a teenage boy as he comes of age, gets in trouble, becomes disenfranchised with the world as he knew it, and undergoes quite a transformation. Alex finds a subtle parallel in Stephan Dedalus of Joyce’s Portrait, though perhaps an inverted parallel. Religious themes weave in and out, along with notions of fatalism, faith, and fear further reflecting certain affinities. Surely someone has already explored these connections, but it was something I couldn’t help noticing; and that interpreted intertextuality only made the novel more entertaining, more interesting to me. I devoured this one over a span of a few days, and I’m sure that will be the case on the second read sometime in the near future.

The End of Alice by A.M Homes

This 1996 third novel by American writer A.M. Homes is a repelling transgressive tale that forces the reader into the mind of one of the most despicable characters I’ve ever encountered. The book is told through the eyes of Chappy, a middle-aged pedophilic prisoner serving a life sentence for murder, as he maintains a correspondence with a nameless nineteen-year-old girl planning to prey on a young boy named Matthew who lives in her neighborhood. Initially taking a morbid interest in Chappy’s case, the girl's letters detail everything from the banal and quotidian aspects of her normal life to the grotesque thoughts that plague her mind, to the progression and development of her devious plan. While her letters comprise a large portion of the text, Chappy’s recitation of her words frequently divulges into imagined fantasies of his own, his speculations on the events that take place far outside his prison cell. And as their correspondence continues, and the nameless teenager’s plan slowly comes to fruition, what ensues is a revolting glimpse into the nature of depravity, sadism, and unspeakable violence.

Imagine if Poppy Z. Brite had written Lolita and you might come close to this one; and though that analogy might sound intriguing, this one completely missed the mark for me. Strangely, morbidly, it wasn’t the content of the novel that dismayed me the most (though the content was certainly more than dismaying), it was the writing itself, and more specifically, the tone of the narrator. The writing, while it had its moments, small instances of flowery language or sonic impression, more often than not fell flat against the loudening juvenile confessional tone that our narrator takes–each chapter runs like a diary entry of sorts, written with wandering words that stray into stream of consciousness though never fully commit; words which consistently ring with the sad, self-pitying, pathetic melodrama that would have had a much greater impact on me when I was younger but was now completely missed on me. And given that this is very much an adult novel, one that I would never have, should never have, read when I was younger, it seemed disquieting, possibly even concerning, that the narrator embodies a voice resonant in such a way. It almost seems an authorial attempt to the humanize the narrator, to evoke in the reader a sense of empathy towards him despite his heinous crimes. For me, the opposite occurred, which, I’ll cede, may too have been the intent, to push the reader the other way, into loathing and disgust against the narrator, especially given his despicable crimes. But the reasons for his imprisonment pale in comparison to what actually fomented my frustration and fury: it was his voice and stylistic manner that annoyed me into hatred. His “woe is I” pathetic weaseling, “pity me, I’m just an old man,” overly emotional, solipsistic smugness that he pawns as a product of the horridness of a world in which he was never fit to live. Each passage teems with a self-pity-riddled morose sensibility that skirts all responsibility, accountability, in favor of a “no one will understand me” perspective of the world and of others. That was what I hated most about this novel, which is truly saying something given the sheer shock-inducing scenes which swarm through its pages. It completely lacked the Bataillean edge I had hoped it would have, and it’s wild to me that Daphne Merkin and Michael Cunningham, great writers in their own right, have praised the book. Its only redeeming quality is in the way it ruffled the feathers of the culturally ascetic, the puritans of prose whose prudishness preclude them from most transgressive literary pleasure. But still my recommendation is don’t waste your time.

Legion by William Peter Blatty

This 1983 seventh novel by American writer and filmmaker William Peter Blatty is the follow-up novel to his enormously successful hallmark of the horror genre, The Exorcist. It’s March of 1983 and a young boy is found murdered, displayed on a boathouse dock near Georgetown in a grotesque pattern suggesting ritualistic motive: a strange symbol is carved into his hand. On the case is Detective Kinderman, a cynical sleuth with a hardened disposition and penchant for biting sarcasm. Prone to discursive philosophical musings, Kinderman grapples with a shaken faith in the shadow of his friend Father Damien Karras’s death, and when another murder occurs, this time a priest bearing the same enigmatic symbol, Kinderman’s long-held religiosity is thrown headfirst into doubt, especially as clues emerge which point to a killer long thought dead. His investigation leads him down a descent into the darkest recesses of imagination, into the dwelling the very devil himself, where he’s forced to confront a fear of Biblical proportions.

It’s the novel that inspired The Exorcist III, which was released in 1990 and contains one of the most widely regarded terrifying jump scares in modern horror cinema; if you know, you know. But while the film is certainly an undisputed classic, Legion, in my opinion, fell short in its brilliance compared to its literary predecessor. While The Exorcist is wholly a horror novel, Legion seemed more a mystery. And it also seemed, to me, to lack the dark poetic brilliance I remember The Exorcist possessing in spades. Legion is much more plot-driven and dialogue-heavy, which tends to usher the reader to skim passages of description sandwiched between long lots of lines. At various times, I wondered if it were initially intended as a screenplay and was turned into a novel, as I felt it could have been a fair bit shorter than the 330 pages it spans. However, the book still teems with a suspense that creeps up from the first page, disturbing and anxious, slowly growing across the pages, climbing to crescendo in the last quarter, and blooming into a violence-filled cacophony, a biblical bloodbath that almost seems to mirror the book of Revelation. It’s still such a strong novel, even it doesn’t live up to the book that started it all. But truth be told, I doubt many other works will ever affect an audience the way that The Exorcist did upon release, both book and film. Some works are simply defining, and others simply fall in the shadow of their definition.

Ice by Anna Kavan

This 1967 sixteenth and final novel by British author Anna Kavan conjures a phantasmagorical vision of imminent ecological devastation, violent totalitarianism, and impassioned pursuit set on the frozen plains at the edge of the world. Set at some point in the near future, in an undisclosed Nordic country, our nameless protagonist embarks on a journey to rescue an elusive girl whom he once loved, a girl with skin pale as snow and hair of shimmering silver, who has fallen in the hands of a tyrannical warlord known only as the warden. His quest takes him from the outskirts of snowy plains, across freezing fjords and rivers to ruined cities, leveled by civil unrest; from innkeepers and hosts, and into the brutal hands of gang members and sadistic military officers. Forced to rely on his wit to stay the right course, our narrator quickly finds himself entangled in a web of political secrecy, surrounded by powerful men whose bloodthirst transcends depravity and caught in the violent clash of his own capricious intentions. But beyond the bounds of his efforts, far in the offing, massive walls of ice move in from the north, slowly inching their way southward, ensuring imminent destruction for all in their path.

I first read Ice many years ago, before I began reading avidly and writing about books. And I remember when I read it, I was propelled into a stupor that muddled my understanding of the book: both the events taking place and plot details, as well as the significance of its form, prose, and thematic explorations. But upon this second reading, which spanned less than a week, it was as if the dark clouds occluding my memory of the novel lifted, and light poured into the pages, illuminating the brilliance which I had long known I’d yet to truly realize. Regarded by many to be Kavan’s masterpiece, Ice is a novel that shatters genres. I’ve seen it referred to as an apocalyptic action adventure, slipstream science fiction, an erotic novel, a work of disaster literature, an existential espionage thriller, nouveau roman, and even a “roman blanc” or “empty novel.” And such indecision, such widespread inability to pigeonhole this novel into a specific category finds its source not only in the tenebrous tale at its heart, but also in its very structures and in Kavan’s majestically elusive prose. For me, Ice is an inherently deconstructive work: themes of the impermanent negative are flipped into the positive, subverting the balance upon which notions of normalcy are created and maintained. Things like war, violence, lust, and greed attain positive values in the face of the “icy death creeping over the globe.” Snow and ice supplant the vegetation which persists only in the memory of the fleeing characters. Morality, hope, justice give way to callousness, as if the cold infects and freezes hearts which were once warm. Kavan demolishes every glint of orientation, perverting our expectations, directions, in favor of a surreal unreality: she has created a novel trapped under its own perpetual erasure.

The resulting effect is a pervasive “doom”– a word that arrives frequently throughout the text, even several times within one page. And yet, it’s not just Kavan’s writing and textual architecture that accomplishes this feat, but the narration of our nameless protagonist. Disquiet flows from fluctuating perspectives: while the novel is written in the first-person, filtered through our narrator’s eyes, at various times, his recitation drifts away from himself, extending beyond the limits of his perception, like snowflakes whisked away with the wind, following characters outside his view and translating their sensory experiences, emotions, and thoughts as if they were his own. Surely, most would consider this effect proof of our narrator’s unreliability, but I don’t. It’s something else for me, something fracturing, fragmenting, something akin to trans-experiential narration. Doubtless, Kavan’s narrative experimentation is what has prompted comparisons to Virginia Woolf, Djuna Barnes, and Hilda Doolittle. But one writer with whom Kavan’s affinities abound across the board, I think, is Danish poet and writer Tove Ditlevsen. One look at their biographies and one will see several similarities: both writers struggled with addiction throughout their lives; both spent time in sanitariums; both used writing to cope with the cold callousness of life; the list continues. But in each’s work, one may also glean stylistic similarities: perspective distortion, fragmentation, hallucinogenic dream sequences, themes of violence, confinement, love, life, death, etc., and more than anything, a dark exploration into the beauty of words. I’d be interested in excavating this connection between the two, reading one against the other and vice versa, and expanding the map drawn between them. It’s likely I’ll look more into it as it is a certainty that I will read more Anna Kavan in the near future. This one novel has reawakened my interest in the writer, her work, and the wide expanse of wonder which hides below its surface, like water under ice.

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