As some of you know, I like to keep this little review spot focused on fairly new, independently produced short fiction, and most of the time I try to keep things pretty light. But a couple of items caught my eye recently, and they reminded me that there’s often a difference between the genre fiction we love and worship – Star Wars, The Walking Dead, George R.R. Martin – and real art.
Now, I find most “fine literature” about as entertaining as gingivitis. Most classics bore me to tears and always will. Dickens, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Faulkner. Seriously, they make me want to shove quill pens deep into my eye sockets just to relieve the tedium. I love genre fiction because it entertains and educates, and, really, those are the only two aspirations I’ve ever had in life.
However, the one thing genre fiction often avoids is making a statement. At the end of the day, you have to ask: What is all of this writing for? Was the author just in it for the money? Maybe, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Was the reader only there for laughs and thrills? Maybe, and there’s also nothing wrong with that. But every once in a while, there should be more. We need to edge out beyond our comfort zones and expand our thinking. When a story changes you, and perhaps even changes culture, that’s art. That’s divine.
Now we get to why I’m selecting this story. Just under a month ago, I was emailing an industry analyst as part of my day job, and he ended up telling me the story of how, only a couple days before, he’d been nearly kicked to death. In Santa Clara, deep in the heart of the high-rent Silicon Valley ‘burbs, some kids got wind of the fact that next-door to my analyst contact sat an empty 5,000-square foot house just ripe for hosting a Halloween rave. Word went out on Facebook. Nearly 200 teens showed up and started to trash the place. My buddy called 911, twice, and the county sheriff broke things up. The cops left, but the kids kept coming and gathered at the end of the street. When three of them approached, the realtor and his partner moved to intercept. The kids began hitting the partner in his face. My friend’s nearly fatal mistake was to rush in to help. He grabbed one of the kids. One of the others knocked him down and proceeded to, in my friend’s words, “play soccer with my body.” Amazingly, he sustained only minor injuries, but things could have easily turned fatal.
This morning, I came across a CNN story describing the spread of a new game among teens called Knockout, “where teens appear to randomly sucker-punch strangers with the goal of knocking them unconscious with a single blow.” In New York alone, police have noted seven Knockout incidents, and the game appears to be gaining notoriety around the country, fueled through the feedback of social media.
This is why it’s so important to read that missing twenty-first chapter. I’m sorry to give spoilers here, but it’s necessary. As Burgess himself later wrote, the last chapter finishes the story with Alex beginning to see the horror and pointlessness of his prior ways. He grows up. You can see him starting to settle down to become a normal, productive citizen even as he expects his own future children to be more rebellious and violent than he has been.
For Burgess, this complete edition reflects a British viewpoint, a coming full circle, a balance and sway between good and evil in which one perennially begets the other. But we Americans...we want the quick jab between the ribs, the fifth or fifteenth sequel about the slasher who never dies. We’re drawn like moths to a sinister cynicism that says, no matter what, you’re always going to burn in the end.
That wasn’t what Burgess wanted. He tried, in a strange way, to offer hope for when our friends are kicked and beaten in the streets by children. This novella is about cycles and humanity and what happens when you try to take the sweet, unpredictable insanity of life, and render it hopelessly mechanical. In the end, chaos must rage, but life will bring it into check...if only for a while. We need this perspective, this insight from a remarkable bit of speculative fiction, to keep us intact through the dark time. We need to know that there is hope in the swing of the pendulum.