A Clockwork Apple - Belinda Webb

As you may guess from the title of this first novel by Belinda Webb, she isn't shy in acknowledging its chief influence. This Apple shares with Burgess' Orange more than merely its title. Once again we have a teenage gang leader by the name of Alex, indulging in artful thuggery and vicious wordplay against a fantastically dismal dystopian background (though the gang are girls not boys). Despite this however, and despite the plot itself mirroring the arc of its forbear point by point, stage by stage , what Webb has achieved in this dynamic debut utterly transcends mere homage or pastiche. This is a fruit which takes on a flavour all of its own.

As this Alex, - an andra rather than an ander- tears her way through a vividly familiar south and central Manchester, it is soon clear much of the book's strength comes from the contrasts and diversions from Burgess' moral tale of ultraviolence, which are every bit as starkly engraved as its defiantly obvious similarities. Thus, again we have Alex the teen-gang leader of four swaggering cohorts in crime (garage overalls and ballet pumps the uniform here) , bile-filled, struttingly contemptuous of authority and environment, parents and surroundings, anything other than themselves. Alex and the girls run riot in their urban Bosch-scape, clashing with other gangs whilst showing society an infernally ornate v-sign. Alex's own authority is in turn questioned by her own gang, who attempt a putsch. The coup is quashed, leading to resentment and revenge, bitterness and betrayal. The gang violently rob a bourgeois household and a death ensues. Alex is sold out by the cohorts, arrested and battered. Following the failure of conventional imprisonment, a freakishly new form of "treatment" aimed at ending the problem of anti-social behaviour at its mind-source is employed, and free will itself ends up on trial.

So much for the similarities - a great tale we should all know. But the intrigue and achievement is where it differs. First off, the environment is not the non-specified spartanly statist austerity as imagined by Burgess, but the very real environs of the south central Manchester both he and Webb hail from, where the grey poverty strewn sprawl of Moss Side and Hulme uneasily rubs against University-land. Cast years into the future with retrospective new place names to match (from the Amis and Eagleton Campuses to the Tony Wilson and Thatcher Streets) the locations are all lovingly laid out for those that know them, giving the Apple both a satirical edge and a grounding in actuality not found in the Orange. Further off, the dystopia here has skewed in different directions than in Burgess' vision. This is a world where men are though not wholly - largely absent. Seemingly a genetic dead-end, the remnants do little but linger, predatory yet lethargic, like vicious sloths, or maybe stunned lions. It's the girls that rule the roost and run riot, though their freedom is a pyrrhic victory over patriarchy at best. When the clash with the forces of mechanistic determinism comes, the nemesis arrives not in the form of a sci-fi mind control technique, but in the more prosaically sinister form of the "Bill'n'Bob Method", a straightjacket of touchy feely psychobbable satirically filched from the pseudo-religiosity of Alcoholics Anonymous.

A greater difference still is the Alex of this book. Burgess's Alex had a penchant was for classical music, Webb's Alex is for writing and literature, and crucially, ideas. Riffs on Marx and Nietzsche, Dickens and Lessing, Gaskell and Wolstonecraft segue into the narrative a forthright style, wit and vigour that seems effortless. Burgess' character was a cold fish, his beautiful language masking an emptiness in his actions, a psychopathy designed to frame the author's dilemma on the nature of free will in as stark a way as possible. The violence of and rebellion of Webb's character is more clearly a darkly realised thirst for freedom, a rampage that cannot be impeded, rather than a revelling in causing pain for its own sake. Tangled though it is in thuggery, it is something rather more life affirming, self-affirming than the grim sadism of its forbear. The Alex of the Apple is someone you can actually like, indeed, I found it impossible not to. Both author and protagonist have a more moral defence of freedom than their inspirations, a sense of class justice, a Robin Hood reparation, a visceral hatred of the "Blytonesque" bourgeois. Ultimately, it's a more beautiful defence of freedom too.

On paper, a brief synopsis of this book may make it seem something of an interesting but ultimately whimsically and futile exercise. But you have to read it. The ideas, interesting as they are, become secondary to the sheer power, the vibrancy, verve and drive of the writing. Webb brilliantly captures, as did Burgess, the narrative voice of rebellious youth, its beautiful cockiness, its transgressive freedom. She does not simply copy or adapt Burgess' "nadsat" language but derives a wonderful imaginary lexicon of her own, drawn more from modern slang and Edwardiana and Victoriana than the Russian influences of Burgess. (galimatious -nonsense, pilgarlick - a poor wretch, phrontistery - thinking place, tintinabulate - ring or call,) This excellent evocation is realised not only by this argot, but moreso in the finely found naturalistic rhythms of a bright and gobby teenage brat of a girl. This is language utterly mastered, the cadences perfectly pitched and placed, a pin-sharp voice beguiling and battering the reader with an exuberant synthesis of wit and vigour, intellect and aggression.

Reworking an old novel can seem a masturbatory conceit, using it to promote your own philosophies adding insult to the original presumptuous injury. Burgess himself came unstuck with this in penning his frankly dreadful 1985 decades after he wrote Orange, a feeble ransacking of Orwell's grave to peddle his own increasingly Blimpish view of the world. Such projects show up stale writing even more clearly than in a "purely original" work. Webb has, emphatically, not fallen into this trap. The zest for innovation she has taken from the source text takes her work into transcendent realms which couldn't be imagined by the original writer. The inspiration of spirit overtakes and becomes more important than the emulation of idea. Crucially, those with no knowledge of the original could find great joy in the writing here, perhaps the truest test. With this dazzling debut, Belinda Webb has managed to avoid the myriad pitfalls of pastiche, whimsy and showboating to create a novel of real beauty, of wit, intelligence, radiance and relevance. Read.

[First published on Spike Magazine, 2008]