Asking a bookworm why he/she loves to read would get one a whole plethora of answers, reading being one of the few true solitary activities available to human beings. If I were asked why I love to read, I’d say that it allows me to venture to different worlds and arenas, as well as widen my imagination and knowledge. If one does not read to learn and imagine, then it would be a complete waste of time, wouldn’t it?
Two of the books that I have acquired over the years have veered off the beaten path, so to speak. The invented language that these books’ authors use here have given my underused brain a pleasantly rigorous challenge. In this case, “language” does not only mean strings of words; it also stands for a wide range of emotions and symbolisms.
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A kid gone haywire
Everyone knows about teenage angst, being too “emo”, and feeling like the entire world is against them. Everyone has felt the urge to fight back, to be completely defiant and deviant, to give authority the middle finger, to march to the beat of their own drum. There are many ways to be an underdog.
Then there’s Alex. He is on an entirely different level.
Anthony Burgess’ 1963 classic, A Clockwork Orange, relates to my theme of language in a number of ways. Firstly (and obviously), Alex ‒ the narrator and main character ‒ and his friends conversed in nadsat, a slang that Burgess made up based on both the Russian language and his own knowledge of linguistics. It took me some time to understand what many words stood for, and it had to be used in different contexts for me to get it. Eventually, familiarity set in, and I felt like one of Alex’s droogs in that I could decipher what they’re saying without any help from CliffsNotes or SparkNotes. Nadsat primarily serves as a dialect that Burgess’ fictional deviants frequently use to talk to one another, but also as a measure of how they think and function: they are different from everyone else in their town in both mentality and tendencies.
This brings us to the second point. In a world where political correctness is a must, the young boys in the novel serve as the poster children for remorseless activity. Alex, Pete, George and Dim relished their dual lives, being subpar students by day and demented gang members by night. Lying, stealing, fighting, beating, drinking and raping were their most favorite pastimes, and they had no regard whatsoever for the consequences of their actions. Parents were kept in the dark and, in Alex’s case, kept under tight control. Old people, women and children were fair game; there were no victims in their world, only hapless prey. They thought of this as real freedom: it is anarchy at its most raw form.
In every clique, there has to be one leader and a number of subservients. Alex saw himself as the rightful leader, and in his eyes, the other three boys existed only to follow and serve him as he pleases. This constitutes a language of sorts that everyone becomes fluent in at a young age: the need to be recognized, accepted and respected by their peers. Like everyone else, Alex looked for unequivocal validation; by placing himself above others in both rank and capability, he wanted and craved control, the kind that can never be revoked or contradicted.
There is another kind of language that all can relate to: physical survival, and the actions that have to be done to guarantee it for a person. As a 15-year-old boy terrorizing an entire town, Alex was a skilled fighter, brandishing his britva or razor at anyone who dared to challenge him physically and/or psychologically. When his three friends betrayed him during a foiled heist at an elderly woman’s house (after which the woman eventually dies from a blow to the head), Alex was arrested, battered by police officers exacting revenge and given a jail sentence.
For two years, Alex was in staja (state jail) along with other hardened inmates. As 6655321, he took to participating in prison masses and beating up (and killing) a new inmate when he tried to take his bed away from him. He was then picked to be the test subject in an experiment: the use of the Ludovico technique, which entailed Alex being injected with drugs and forced to watch gruesome and heinous films for several days while his eyelids and eyebrows were pulled back and he was strapped to a chair.
The most important language being “spoken” in this book is mental survival. As visual and emotional association was used against him, he suddenly changed from a “free”, violent young boy into one imprisoned by physical aversion to any violent act ‒ he instantly became dizzy and had the urge to vomit upon even the slightest occurrence of both pleasurable acts and socially unaccepted behavior, thus dissuading him from being out of line.
There are several questions that surface: Up to what point can the government participate in a human being’s life? To what extent can a person exercise control and free will? Are we really capable of living in a harmonious society? Each person goes through minute forms of mental conditioning each day, but how long would it take for a person’s mind and soul to give way? And after we have fought back from the lowest depths, are we still able to truly forgive?
All throughout the book, music, another form of language, was given a big role in Alex’s narration. A fan of classical music, he used Beethoven, Mozart and other greats to show what he felt and thought. From immense pleasure after a crime to great pain as he was thrown back into society after the treatment, music emphasized Alex’s frame of mind. It was also the final nail in the coffin that led to a very significant twist in Burgess’ story.
The book that I have includes the final chapter that was taken out of the US version. In A Clockwork Orange Resucked, Burgess explained that that final chapter was essential to the story and should not have been taken out by his American publisher; I agree with him. While the US print ended in a slightly cruel manner, the worldwide edition left its readers with a good amount of hope. In some twisted way, I couldn’t help but root for Alex in the latter parts of the novel. A thoroughly vile character as a symbolism for human beings’ tendency for lawlessness and violence is a pretty effective one.
A formidable underage killer
One of the things that drive humans to act is the sense of duty. It does not matter whether one is accountable to oneself, family, or country; when given a task that corresponds to a given set of personal beliefs, most people would strive to excel at it.
Chuck Palahniuk illustrates this perfectly with Pygmy, his 2009 work of fiction, through his narrator, who bears the same name as the book.
A young killer from an unnamed country, Pygmy and his fellow child cohorts were sent to an also-unnamed city in midwest USA (disguised as children from an orphanage participating in a six-month cultural program facilitated by the Catholics in the neighborhood) to carry out Operation Havoc, conceptualized by their military superiors to sow prolonged chaos within the borders of their most mortal enemy. Sounds like a pretty straightforward plot, right? Well… not exactly. There’s also a strange love story going on amid all the murders, spying and (real and imagined) Pumping Rabbit Maneuvers, along with a good dash of introspection.
All writers obviously use language and dialogue to tell a story; Palahniuk goes a step further by having Pygmy narrate in broken English, characteristic of a foreigner who does not have English as his native language. Like Burgess’ nadsat, a slight adjustment needs to be done while reading. But no, it’s not Engrish: the author throws in words that tell of both double meanings and a character thoroughly educated in combat, weaponry and human anatomy. It is the language of an intelligent child ‒ one who knows what he wants and what he has to do, and thinks in simple terms. Readers have to closely note the words that Palahniuk uses: besides the amusing variety of killer (both in the figurative and literal sense) moves that Pygmy knows and does, subtle clues regarding his changing mentality can be found scattered within the narration.
The language of politics is very tricky and prone to varied interpretations. Leaders leverage intelligence, charisma, and the sheer power of numbers to pull entire nations in limitless directions, and can justify their actions and thoughts convincingly. The only common factor between all these warring sides is that all of them think that their way of life is most superior.
In the current international atmosphere, there are two sides: those who advocate peace, democracy and freedom, and those who preach the abandonment of individual needs and thought for the total benefit of the state. A person who picks one side is an instant foe of the other.
Palahniuk plays on this conflict by making Pygmy a product of Communism, one extremely hungry for the blood of “animals” who live in a country that dealt his homeland countless casualties and suffering in the name of peace, democracy and freedom. He was raised by the government with revenge on his mind; taught quotations from Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Idi Amin and Chairman Mao; told that the enemy should be conquered through sodomy and that killing satisfies the wishes of the state and supreme deity; and given a clear example of how he should conduct himself by shooting an overachieving colleague in the head. By teaching him that all Americans are evil and should be executed for generations of crimes, the unnamed Communist country acts like the American government, which (until Obama came to office) completely generalizes that all countries that don’t blindly agree with it are automatic enemies.
Family ties is also touched upon by Palahniuk. The Cedars, Pygmy’s American foster family, was initially presented as a perfectly functioning unit ‒ two doting parents and two normal children residing in a typical suburban area. As time passes, contradicting images were then shown. The parents had their own emotional crutches (alcohol, prescription drugs and, for the mother, vibrators) and the children kept their respective secrets: “pig brother” was bullied by a boy named Trevor Stonefield, and “cat sister” went on midnight sojourns for “spy work”. The siblings were also an occasional tag team, as evidenced by a chapter wherein they drugged their parents so cat sister and Pygmy could sneak out. Nevertheless, they are still a family and possess an intense loyalty for each other, something that Pygmy unwittingly gave up upon his acquisition by the Communist government. In some flashbacks, Pygmy reflected on how he was separated from his family and regretted not letting his mother kiss him on the forehead in farewell, since it may be seen as a moment of weakness. He called his fellow child fighters “family” in some instances, but what he eventually wants is a different kind of family.
I think that sympathy and love are emotions understood and felt by everyone in normal situations, but extreme circumstances make them available only to a few. Stockholm syndrome is one of the novel’s focal points, notably involving Pygmy and Trevor Stonefield. Trevor, as pig brother’s bully, was matched in violence by Pygmy, who cornered him into a Wal-Mart bathroom stall to get pig brother’s money back and sodomized him, just as intended by his government mentors. Pygmy eventually managed to conquer Trevor not just physically, but emotionally as well: in a cruel twist, Trevor fell in love with Pygmy and yearned for that love to be returned. He was not held captive literally, nor did he fully understand the reasons for the assault. But Trevor’s eventual death and the trickery that he pulled for Pygmy to kill him helped shake up the budding child terrorist’s resolve.
Pygmy also showcases a language I absolutely love: irony. The book pokes fun at American culture (particularly the great obsession with sex/sexuality and countless substitute names for breasts ‒ the characters “Madam Sweater Meats” and “Lady Party Pillows” come to mind), organized religion and the ever-messy world of politics while making readers see that this is actually the current state of things. In my opinion, the ending itself is ironic; the story ends in a very unexpected way, as if mocking readers who expected carnage and chaos all throughout its 241 pages. It was slightly disappointing, but then again, things don’t always go according to plan. Like Alex of A Clockwork Orange, Pygmy put up a great fight against the state, and in his own language. That’s enough, I guess.