There’s an old idiom that states you can’t compare apples to oranges but in the case of Belinda Webb’s A Clockwork Apple (2008) you can’t help compare it to Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, purely because it follows the source so closely. However, there are wholesale changes for the sake of parody, notably the inversion of genders, so that rather than teenage boys running amok, Webb’s dystopia is populated by teenage girls.
Alex, and her three Grrrlz - Petra, Georgia, and Mid (”Mid being really mid”) - live in Moss Side, a deprived area in the city of Manchester, referred to as Madchester. The people are weaned on addiction therapy, shown on the Recovery Channel, and left without the opportunities that the middle classes, nicknamed the Blytons, are privy to. So, as teenagers are wont to do, they lash out in anger, doling out beatings and kicking in windows with their ballet pumps:
…we aren’t sponsored by the state to fight, only by our own H.P.’s [higher powers]- to fight to honour our Phrontisteries. Or, at the very least, to avenge the dismissal and frustration of said Phrontisteries.
The obvious target of Alex’s rage takes in the current fascination with the world of celebrity:
Most of our fellow Gutshot Rebos patrons, girlies and boys alike, are loafing around reading, not proper stuff, but looking at pictures, tabloid barathrums that they are, like theyz still in the ickle wickle nursery school. Theyz hypnotised by pictures of girls and boys who have made itand who are saying with their new capped smiles, ‘Look at me, aren’t I clever, don’t you want what I’ve got?‘
The “proper stuff” is what marks Alex out from the rest. Where A Clockwork Orange’s Alex would lose himself in classical music, A Clockwork Apple’s Alex keeps under the bedroom floorboards her “stash of mind power” - books. In literature she plays with Nietzschean aphorisms, or references the likes of Raymond Carver, Richard Yates, and Jack London. But it all seems little more than name-dropping as, while Alex may revere them, they don’t seem to have enhanced her character in any way. Indeed, it seems strange that someone smart enough to enjoy literature should speak in such a way. Where Burgess plundered the Russian language for his nadsat, Alex’s voice is a tiring concoction of urban slang, obscure words, and something approaching nursery rhyme patois, all punctuated with, or variations thereof, braying laughter: hee hee haw haw. If this is how the smart ones talk, then Webb’s dystopia is certainly a grim future.
After breaking into Mrs Gaskell’s Academy for Girls, Alex finds herself in prison and with an option to enter a twelve step rehabilitation programme. This brings up the question of Alex’s anger, of how to accept it and address it. She’s angry at the state, she’s angry at her drunken mother, she’s angry at everything, and has chosen to show it:
Coz, you see, inwards meanz you are creating more problems for yourself, on behalf of THEM, whereas OUTWARDS meanz you’re creating problems for THEM, where it belongs. Where it longs to be. Depression or expression? Which is it to be, my dear sistaz? Which?
It’s hard to care about Alex as her opinions on literature come off quite flat, and her presence lacks a third dimension. As a narrator, however, she does express a certain flair for the English language, playing with words and dropping in cultural references, although sometimes dwelling too long that they become stretched. Sadly, where part of the joy of A Clockwork Orange was coming across a nadsat word and understanding it from its context, in A Clockwork Apple referring to the enclosed glossary is necessary.
Were Alex’s vocabulary relaxed from the tirades of swearing that spew from her filthy mouth, A Clockwork Apple could perhaps have cut itself some slack as a teen novel. It’s the book of an author who has graduated from the nineties and, finding the 21st Century a disappointment, wants to shout about it. At its heart there’s an obvious love for Burgess’ novel, A Clockwork Apple, shadowing it all the way, with punchy inversions and sly references. But while oranges are not the only fruit, there really is no comparison.