Volume Five, December 2004

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A product of Burgess’s ‘terminal year,’ One Hand Clapping did not receive much critical appreciation mostly because it appeared under the pseudonym Joseph Kell. It is a first person narration of life in the 1950’s in the suburban Midlands, satirizing the world of consumerism as represented by television, supermarkets, council houses, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and so on. The strange title may suggest that the Western wasteland could be helped by an Eastern philosophy, namely by Zen Buddhism. As Howard Shirley explains to his wife Janet, one hand clapping “[is] from Zen Buddhism.... It’s something you have to try and imagine.... It’s a way of getting in touch with Reality, you see, proceeding by the way of the absurd.”1 Besides this non-materialistic hint in total opposition with the materialistic society depicted by the novel, One Hand Clapping is the very title of the play within the novel they go to, a play Janet concludes as being about “everybody being very unhappy because they’d got their education paid for by the government, or something, and there was no war on for anybody to fight in, or something like that.”2
It is actually through Janet’s monologue that we find out that, like most other people in the 1950’s, Howard is tortured by the pettiness, vulgarity and stupidity of everything surrounding him, by the threat of another war and of the Hydrogen Bomb, and that he finds life useless to live because “...when all’s said and done, there’s not all that much to live for...there may be no future to bother about.... And it’s a wicked world.”3 In fact both Howard and Janet are but mere products of the society the former rejects, a middle class environment devoid of any aspirations. The inventory of their life and possessions reveals the lack of spiritual perspective that they share: “We had a TV, a radio with a strap like a handbag for carrying round the house, a washing-machine, a vac, but no car of our own or children.”4 I would like to highlight at this point how Burgess short-circuits a very serious problem, like having or not having children, by enumerating it alongside with having earthly possessions as a radio, washing-machine or a vacuum cleaner. This way of mocking important things is a device he likes and employs often enough and is meant to emphasise the pettiness of the characters. Yet if the fairly clever but vulgar and ill-educated Janet totally accepts the values surrounding her, her husband is a severe critic of the world generating these norms, and his ‘gift,’ namely his photographic memory, becomes some kind of paradoxical quality leading him to desire to commit suicide. The story narrated by Janet is at the same time funny and scaring: having won a big TV quiz prize due to Howard’s photographic memory, they can buy and do whatever they may desire. But soon enough happiness is turned into frustration when they discover that “there was nothing else that [they] were missing except the things that money can’t buy.”5
Thus, what in the beginning seemed to be a blessing becomes a burden that affects both of them, although in different ways. As a product of the modern secondary school system where teachers, instead of teaching their students English and History, pay more attention to the entertainment aspect of their education, Janet lacks any understanding of what lies behind the values she accepts. Consequently, she turns from a loving wife into a femme fatale and later on into a murderess, all the while claiming that the only thing she wants is “to live a nice decent life.”6 Howard, who is more intelligent, better educated and more sensitive than his wife, is affected by the threat of mortality as embodied by nuclear weapons and wishes to live like a millionaire for a while and then die.
This cynical attitude is the starting point of his quest journey. A typical Burgessian anti-hero, he is remarkable in no way, except for his photographic memory. He works as a used-car salesman and lives a rather dull life that imitates the commercials on TV to such an extent that sometimes reality seems but a pale imitation of television and an episode of a soap opera is far more real than a real emergency.7 Even after having won the TV quiz show and having become a public person he cannot become a local hero because, as Janet puts it,

[although] people would point him out in the didn’t seem...that they pointed him out in a nice way, as if he was a pop-singer, but in a sort of mixed way, part admiring and part though it was all wrong for a grown man to waste his time on book-learning...8

The fact that he is not recognized as a hero by his community, combined with the illusion that since he is able to reproduce things about the great writers of the past he is automatically endowed with their dignity and idealism, makes his victory as a winner of the quiz a hollow one. In the interview with a reporter from the Daily Window he admits that the great humanistic writers were

humiliated at school when [they] had to do them, The Mill on the Floss and A Shorter Boswell and Henry IV Part I were [their] set of books, and [they] drew dirty drawings all over them. And the teachers were no better than [they] were. And now humiliated by just being used to win a thousand pounds.9

He thus asserts that the great writers of the past are in fact being negated by mass culture. And these great masters and mass culture represent the ‘duoverse’ created by Burgess in this novel. Howard is torn apart between the respective set of values, he himself being but a pale imitation of the former through his photographic memory. If Janet lives only in and for the present, Howard seems to have a slight understanding of the past (i.e., the superiority of the great masters) and he certainly wants to be able to plan his future.
The controversy between determinism and free will, present in all Burgess’s novels, is brought up in One Hand Clapping too, as we see Howard determined to be the master of his future through his choices and actions. This is the reason why he tries, and even succeeds, to train his photographic mind to imagine the future. Thus he wins on some horse races and multiplies his money. But more important than money is his feeling that he is able to seize control of his own destiny. Now he can time and determine his (and Janet’s) own death. Having in fact little time at hand, he tries to enjoy everything money can buy, but at the same time he tries to demonstrate to Janet the futility and meaninglessness of material life. Like any other Burgessian anti-hero who at a certain moment is separated from his home (or identity), Howard takes a trip to America, where he is exposed to new values. But instead of being illuminated and/or of succeeding in finding a means of coping with himself and the new world he lives in, Howard learns nothing from this journey and sticks to his planned death:

We’ve got to show the Daily Window and the whole world that we are getting out of the world as a sort of protest. Our deaths will sort of show how two decent ordinary people who’d been given every chance that money can give but no other chance, no other chance at all, how two such people felt about the horrible stinking world. “Death, girl, death...that’s what I’m talking about, death, lovely death. We’re going to die, girl.”10

By this intention to physically annihilate Janet and himself, Howard tries to prove both his final detachment from the material world and his capacity to control his destiny. As critics noted, because Howard “attempts to understand and develop beyond the limitations of his environment [he can] only solve his dilemma by the desperate remedy of death.”11
Yet his suicide “pact” is a “one-hand-clapping” pursuit since Janet is too intent on living and thus, in self-defence, she kills him. It is an undistinguished and un-heroic death she condemns him to by hitting him with a coal hammer, a symbol of the material world they live in. She thus points to the uselessness of his un-heroic negativism. From the moment she kills him, Janet becomes an anti-hero protagonist as well, since she creates her own values which are certainly in contradiction with the values of society: besides being a murderess, she becomes a thief too, and enters into a strange relationship with another man. In a way she is the one who succeeds in what Howard fails at: she re-creates her own values and lives up to them. By retiring to a quiet place in France – again the hero’s estrangement from her natural environment – she acquires some kind of Buddhist peace, and lives by the sound of “one hand clapping.”
In Manichaean terms she seems to be an Augustinian, who easily accepts reality as it is, with its good and evil side, while Howard, who is disappointed by the society he lives in and tries to reassess its values, is a Pelagian. The very values which could ultimately save society place him in a definite isolation as anti-hero, since he has the disadvantage of finding himself among a minority unable to utter their beliefs loudly enough, as they can only clap with one hand. His alienation, a typical anti-heroic one, is the source of both his separation from the majority who accept a life of conventions, and of the meaninglessness of his actions. Burgess does not solve Howard’s dilemma and the latter’s quest journey only reveals the predicament of the individual facing a cultural wasteland. Although funny and entertaining, with a clearly satiric point, the novel depicts an extremely frightening materialistic world.

1 Anthony Burgess, One Hand Clapping (London: Vintage, 1996), 106.
2 Ibid., 107.
3 Ibid., 6-7.
4 Ibid., 1.
5 Ibid., 131.
6 Ibid., 169.
7 Ibid., 28.
8 Ibid., 49.
9 Ibid., 68.
10 Ibid., 150.
11 Charles G. Hoffmann and A.C. Hoffmann, “Inside and Outside Mr. Enderby.” in Modern Critical Views: Anthony Burgess, edited by Harold Bloom (New York, New Haven and Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987), 30.

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