The Wanting Seed and Honey for the Bears
Though he’s been busy at the fiction trade since 1956, Anthony Burgess first started to loom on American horizons with his Clockwork Orange (1962). I haven’t read any of the six novels that preceded that minor bombshell (only a couple have been published here), and list them here, mostly out of antiquarian piety. Time for a Tiger, The Enemy in the Blanket, Beds in the East, The Right to an Answer, The Doctor is Sick, and Devil of a State appeared at about one-year intervals from 1956 to 1961 without creating much of a stir. Perhaps stir would have been excessive; for even the Orange, which clearly broke through something, was just as clearly a flawed literary product. Its language was jazzy: in the tradition of sour Utopias, it was horrifyingly seedy and brutal. But it didn’t have much dimension for character, or rather a lot of the character was obviously mechanistic; and the over-all structure of the book left something to be desired in the way of clarity and point. Alex the droog as narrative agent posed some problems which were far from neatly solved, and in general one felt the presence of more raw energy than the author could gracefully control.
Now, in The Wanting Seed and Honey for the Bears, we have two more volumes by this supremely prolific writer—the former published here just a few months ago, the latter new: and from a critical point of view, they represent a very satisfactory sortingout of elements which made the Orange such a fixed performance. Most of the grand-Guignol gadgetry has gone into one book, most of the literary art into the other. Instead of two mediocre books, we have a pretty bad and a very good one. The gain is obvious.
Seed, to this reader’s taste, is a mechanically contrived and clumsy novel; its gimmick is the population explosion, and it relies on no other allurements—neither plot nor character nor style nor atmosphere. All the foreseeable grotesque horrors are here; the teeming rabbit-warren cities with contraceptive-dispensers at every street-corner. population police, castration-propaganda, a diet of plankton-cakes, mass murder, and mass homosexuality. After many trials, the featureless heroine bears twins, not only illegal but illegitimate; how heroic can you get? Her heterosexual but low-pressure spouse, persecuted like Edgar by his evil, ambisexual brother like Edmund, sees the smashup of the artificial society, and experiences a pseudo-religious fertility-revival movement which is allowed to trail off without getting anywhere. Having passed by novelistic contrivance through a mass-murder establishment, he returns to Brighton for a last-page reunion with his ever-loving. Since the reader has never really made the acquaintance of either one of these paper-dolls, it is possible to feel less than misty-eyed at their regrouping across a baby-carriage within which the twins—still illegitimate, but now apparently legal and in fact okay—coo and gurgle at the English Channel.
Honey for the Bears, on the other hand, is a novel for people. For one …