Tuesday, May 15, 2007

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey

Apparently everyone else on earth read this book in high school, and saw the movie too. Alright, well, I went to a Lutheran high school, and explaining the catheters made out of condoms (and reused!) might have given my freshman English teacher a few more questions than he was happy with. Not that he would have been thrilled about my ending a sentence with with. Twice. Actually he was really cool, and let us do Lord of the Flies as a feature video set in the hallways of our school. But I digress.

I found this book at the thrift store and bought it to read, and at the exact same moment, Veronica found it at her father's house, and took it home to read. This kind of literary synchronicity cannot be ignored. There must be significance.

Ken Kesey said he was too old to be a hippie and too young to be a beatnik, but he and his gang, the "Merry Pranksters" raised plenty of hell in their day, despite their lack of a popular category. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was his first novel, written mostly in graduate school, which gives everyone a little bit of undeserved hope.

I think the novel is brilliant for two reasons.

First, there is the narrator. The book is told, not by the main character, or by a disinterested narrator, but by a crazy person. So all the descriptions of the ward, Nurse Ratched, the crazies, are filtered through this altered consciousness. Kesey stays just on the correct side of being cute about it. Cuteness would have killed it, but as it was, Bromden's narration perfectly cranked up the feeling of being in another, twisted, horrific world. No external voice could have accomplished this. His point of view, maintained throughout, also helped us see the change in his mental state, happening so slowly that we almost don't notice it, without being told about it. So, at the end, we believe he is fully okay to go out into the world, although we witnessed the extent of his initial lunacy, because we also witnessed his progression back to functionality.

The second reason I loved this book was for its hooks. Instead of an either/or hook (will the world be saved? will the lovers unite?) there was a complicated engine. Because Bromden is pretending to be deaf and dumb, the very first page of the book presents a compelling reason to read on -- will he eventually speak, what will make him speak, and what will he say? The other question, "Will McMurphy defeat Nurse Ratched?" is also complex, beyond a yes-or-no answer, because the battle is being fought on such strange territory.

I read McMurphy as explosive humanity, glorious deviance -- the ability to see through rules and definitions to the agendas behind them. Therefore dangerous to stability and predictability that these rules and definitions provide. I read Ratched as establishment, enforcer, the hand on the lever that runs the gears. She could not suffer McMurphy because he understood her and was not afraid of her. In the book, as in life, she possessed the ultimate weapon, because even though she is an ideological fraud, she has all the physical power.

Veronica read a lot more gender issues into the book, which made a lot of sense as soon as she explained it to me. There was a viscious smart professional and a friendly stupid whore, and really no other women portrayed in the book. McMurphy could be read as the ultimate heroic male -- beyond the manipulation of the stifling woman, but ultimately brought down by her.

A few words about the movie:

Great. Brilliant. It did not have the same message as the book, and it did not have the same intensity. Having read the book just before I saw the movie, I didn't feel like a lot of the movie made sense without the stuff in the book, but taken on its own terms and without that prejudice, it was fantastic. Because of Jack Nicholson. He is an amazing actor. I mean, that's kind of retarded to say, at this point, but having just seen him in The Departed and now this, it is so interesting to me how he can play two different characters, and use all of his signature expressions, moves, inflections, etc, and still have the characters be so essentially themselves. It's a mystery!

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