Tuesday, September 29, 2009

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey

Posted by lea at 12:08 PM
This is a difficult review to approach, knowing what a classic this story is (both book and movie) and how it tackles some pretty big issues. I won't even try to pretend this is a literary or artsy fartsy type of review – it's just my gut thoughts and reaction to the book. To begin with, it just reeks of tragedy and there's a sense of foreboding all the way through. I've never seen the movie so I had no idea where the plot was going to go, but my stomach could tell that it wasn't going to go without a fight.

The story is an allegory of what can happen in an institution when too much power is given to one person and left unchecked. Much like Lord of the Flies, it's a social experimental 'what if' that takes the question to its furthest boundary. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the individual in question in Nurse Rached, a passive aggressive tyrant who rules her ward in a mental asylum with a single raised eyebrow and icy stare, which is enough to quell the inmates – at least until the introduction of rowdy loud McMurphy, whose very sanity challenges and upsets the status quo.

McMurphy quickly throws his energy into overturning the Nurse's regime of power and restoring normalcy to the men. At first it's all a joke, a way to while away his time, but it soon turns into a power struggle that involves all the inmates and could potentially (in fact you know it will) turn very nasty. There's a dark thread of violence and abuse of power that runs through the book, from the orderlies' casual abuse of the inmates to the use of electroshock therapy and even frontal lobotomies, aimed to vegetate.

The entire story is told through the eyes of 'Chief' Bromden, an extremely effective narrator who sees all and hears all, yet remains a little distant from the action. The inner awakening of the Chief is thematic in the book, as a result of McMurphy's influence.

My first thought upon finishing the last sentence was, 'Why did Ken Kesey write this book?'. Subconsciously there was a part in me that felt that the book was rather didactic, but couldn't quite place my finger on the lesson. I discovered with a little googling that he used to be an orderly at a mental institution and this formed the basis of his book. He also experimented with drugs, and the first three pages of the book came from a drug-fuelled haze and were never edited out. Ah, suddenly things fall into place. This WAS the 60s after all. Mental disease was something to be feared and never understood, and you can see where Kesey's sympathies lie.

One place it doesn't lie with is women (how's that for a segue?). All the main female characters are either whores or powermongers. And the fixation on Nurse Rached's breasts, culminating in their violent exposure at the end, is somewhat troubling. I'm thinking that Kesey probably didn't have a very good relationship with his mother.

Overall, it's a good read, pretty intense and confronting at times, and also quite dark. While the themes are still relevant today, it would have been far profounder and more impactful in the 60s when the book was first published.

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