Year of Publication: 1962
The premise: A hoodlum hoodlums too hard. The state tries to reform him through aversion therapy.
My experience: I first attempted this book ca. 2005 and abandoned it before chapter 2. The narration, thick with made-up teen slang with Russian provenance, proved impenetrable, and when I WAS able to discern what was happening I was traumatized. So I put it off and put it off until I only had 3 books left to go and it was the next one available at the library. This time I got smarter and read it with a glossary in hand.
I still spent the first third saying to myself, literally, out loud, “I HAAAAATE THIS.” I felt genuinely sorry for the poor people being victimized by My Humble Narrator; I found the violence really disturbing and just wanted it to end. I mean, one rape per book is plenty.
But then there’s the rest of the story, where My Humble Narrator gets hauled off to prison and undergoes brain washing and then gets released back into society. Then it starts asking big questions, the central of which is what does it mean to be good? Is it enough to *do* good? What if you wish to do harm but do good regardless? What if you do good because you cannot choose otherwise? And it touches on themes of compassion, forgiveness, and the like that I would love to just talk to pieces at a book club. Oh – and many of the atrocities of the first part turn out to be Chekhov guns,* and not merely horrible for horribility’s sake.
So by the end I didn’t hate it. I actually–I can’t believe I’m saying this–really liked it. Not in the sense that I enjoyed it, no, it remains a difficult and challenging and frequently gross experience. But it absolutely belongs on the list.
Oh, and one other interesting note: it, like the Gospel of Mark, has a short ending and a long ending, both of which have been published as canonical at various times and places. The version I read had a textual note that told me where the longer ending began. And again, as with Mark, I think the shorter ending makes more sense, though the longer is happier.
Incidentally, I have not seen the movie. I don’t think I could handle it.
You would like this book if: You laugh in the face of trigger warnings
* The heck is the plural of ‘Chekhov’s gun’?