By Michael Adams
Belinda Webb’s futuristic, dystopian novel, A Clockwork Apple (2008), follows Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (1962) closely in many details: the first-person narrator’s name is Alex; the male Alex in A Clockwork Orange has “droogs” named George, Pete, and Dim (‘Dim being really dim’), while Webb’s female Alex has “grrrlz” named Georgia, Petra, and Mid (‘Mid being really mid’ — that is, middle class or brow, part of what Alex later calls the ‘unheard herd’). And so it goes, a Mancunian homage, but with an unexpected feminist agenda.
Webb could easily appropriate much of Burgess’ story, but not Nadsat, the infamous argot Burgess invented for Alex and his droogs, fashioned from Russian loanwords and various elements of English slang: ‘He looked a malenky bit poogly when he viddied the four of us, coming up so quiet and polite and smiling, but he said: “Yes? What is it?” in a very loud teacher-type goloss, as if he was trying to show us he wasn’t poogly.’ It is inimitable language, and beyond replacing Orange Alex’s characteristic ‘O my brothers’ with Apple Alex’s ‘sistaz’, Webb needed a new linguistic modus operandi.
In order to establish a distinctive voice for Apple Alex, Webb mashes up language of ‘the Street’, grrrl-powered slang, Joycean wordplay, and erudite vocabulary. So, ‘Petra is flicking paint from a thick brush against a wall. It is, however, a wall set aside for such endeavours. It means nish. It gets white-washed every evening. This feeble, fucking futile attempt at a pocket of self-expression. Widdershins and mumpsimus, my dear sistaz, sheer widdershins and mumpsimus’. Or, ‘She stares at her, trying to determine whether this ex-Blyton is capable of being a tregateur. Theyz don’t want to believe it, you see, not of Mid! … They also don’t see that there is another part of her that will never forgive her own for the dissing of her illusionment upon which she had been brought up before Moss-side’. Or, ‘Muvva is sat in the kitchen, twiddlin’ her grey hair. The box is left to blair, on and on, anon. The might of King Anon. An on an’ on an’ on’. Webb indulges the High Vernacular, in other words, complete with anachronistic puns.
Webb’s Alex fights against anything ‘mid’, anything ‘Blyton’ (the putative false consciousness of Enid Blyton’s Sunny Days), especially against ‘impression management’ as practiced in polite conversation or the tabloids, different though these may seem to some. She and her grrrlz fight
with graceful ballet moves and,
Boustrophedon. Yep, both ways.
To write is to fight.
In Alex’s style, the learned weaves seamlessly with the lewd: boustrophedon ‘writing left to right, then right to left’, tregateur ‘trickster’, abnormis ‘irregular, unconventional’, and especially phrontistery ‘thinking place’, the seat of empowerment for one intent on locating the H.P. ‘higher power’ in herself. Alex knows these words because she is a reader, though reading and knowing make her a delinquent in the ‘PAFFETIK’ future world of ‘Madchester’. At home, she pulls ‘the canvas rug up off the floor and then prise up one of the old rotten floorboards and there, my dear sistaz, is my stash of mind power — that is, Books! I is in the fullness of haecceity now, my dear sistaz’. If your Latin fails you, look it up in the Dictionary.
In Webb’s novel, we are, significantly, on Alex’s side. This is a sharp turn from A Clockwork Orange. As Burgess wrote in The Listener (17 February 1972), ‘My hero or anti-hero, Alex, is very vicious, perhaps even impossibly so, but his viciousness is not the product of genetic or social conditioning: it is his own thing, embarked on in full awareness. Alex is evil, not merely misguided, and in a properly run society such evil as he enacts must be checked and punished’. No morally well-adjusted person can be on Orange Alex’s side.
Apple Alex is violent. She even kills representatives of the system. But she is a rebel, not a predator, delinquent, not evil. She rightly resists the world of Blytons and everything mid. As she puts it, ‘Belligerancy is Queen!’ And, ‘despite having spent some of our Grrrl power from the land of Angria, there is still plenty in the bank, so to speak — everything to fight against’. A properly run society ought to be run according to Alex’s values, not for the comfort of Blytons. If she goes too far to preserve her freedom, she is certainly misguided, but evil? As she switches styles from Street to Dictionary, she is a canny narrator, engaged, like any narrator, in a sort of impression management — but is she evil?
Apple Alex’s argot is no mere decoration but the full expression of her character, its private and public parts. And, as Burgess insisted in The Listener, Nadsat ‘is no mere decoration’ either. ‘It was meant to turn A Clockwork Orange into, among other things, a brainwashing primer. You read the book or see the film, and at the end you should find yourself in possession of a minimal Russian vocabulary — without effort, with surprise. This is the way brainwashing works’. Apple Alex’s style forces us to think like her, in all of her haecceity. While we resist such narrative coercion, our resistance merely recapitulates hers, rousing our sympathy, perhaps even our approval, much of the time.
Nadsat is shiny language that distracts us from Orange Alex’s horrible crimes. Readers need the distraction and they also need to confront the moral consequences of that distraction, their tenuous grasp of moral priorities. Orange Alex needs the distraction, too — the language show he puts on is a form of dissociation. In the end, though, it exposes not only a moral but a linguistic vacuum. This is the fundamental difference between Nadsat and Apple Alex’s style: Nadsat is thematically significant, but its relationship to the theme is oblique and (if the reader is not completely brainwashed) profoundly ironic. In contrast, Apple Alex’s language is motivated immediately by the novel’s feminist themes and expresses them directly, with an (albeit unacknowledged) earnestness inconceivable in Nadsat and opposed to its value in Burgess’ novel.
Brandon Robshaw’s review of A Clockwork Apple in The Independent (13 April 2008) begins with a two paragraph pastiche of the novel’s challenging style and ends swiftly with the judgement, ‘Are you tiring of this? Me too’. It illustrates the problem of what the linguist Michael Halliday calls anti-language, from teenage slang to the literary idiosyncrasy of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake — it could be that the invented language is tiring, that the author has erred in the saying, but it might just as easily be a case of bad listening, as when adults can’t hear the slang teens speak all around them, and the teens quite accurately complain that the adults aren’t listening to them — they refuse to listen on the terms set by teens as surely as teens refuse to conform to adult expectations. But, after all, do the teens really want the adults to listen? When the style of A Clockwork Apple rubs us the wrong way, when we reject its terms, we re-enact a fundamental sort of linguistic disconnection, after which we may find an occasional connection.
Michael P. Adams is Associate Professor of English and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of English Language and Literature at Indiana University. He currently edits quarterly journal American Speech and is President Elect of the Dictionary Society of North America. His published work includes Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon (2003) and Slang: The People’s Poetry (2009). His most recent book, From Elvish to Klingon, published in November 2011. You can read more by Michael Adams on OUPblog here.