ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST by Ken Kesey (1962)
Encapsulate the book in one sentence?
Very briefly, the lunatics take over the asylum.
When did I buy it? Where and why did I buy it?
Ages ago I bought a secondhand copy of the edition we had on our bookcase when I was a kid: with Jack Nicholson on the cover. Always something I meant to read. When I was a kid it always seemed disturbing and rather dark. Because of the shared lead actor I think I had it mixed up in my head with ‘The Shining.’
What year or edition?
I was very pleased with my vintage copy, and after about thirty pages the tiny print and the sheer number of words on a page were doing my head in. Honestly, Picador – I blame you and your books for ruining my eyes. Over the years how many Picadors have I read in miniature? Much of Angela Carter I had to squint at. Thomas Pynchon. Umpteen others. And Ken Kesey this week seemed like a return to those migrainey days.
I had to give in and buy the e-book, so that I could make the font as big as I liked. This felt like I was defeating the point of this reading challenge – ie, to buy no more books and to work my merry way through the vast, physical book piles. BUT it also seemed important to give the book a fair hearing and to find a way in which I could comfortably read it. So – the e-book.
What’s your verdict?
I admired it, rather than enjoyed it. I think ‘Chief’ Bromden’s point of view is brilliantly maintained. He’s the mostly-silent narrator whom everyone assumes is deaf and mute, but who is watching everything. McMurphy comes into the ward and the story like a whirlwind; a devilish dervish tempting all of the inmates to gamble and rebel against the brutal treatment they’re getting. It juggles all kinds of registers and modes – slipping into lyrical flashback at times, when our narrator revisits his own history (when ‘the fog’ lifts and he can think clearly.) There’s lots of spoken, colloquial, rapping, showy language – brilliantly rendered by an author with a fantastically good ear. But all the while I felt like I was merely spectating or eavesdropping. Maybe the film – good as it is – has spoiled this novel for me? I was doing that dopey thing of – having seen the film first – watching out for the scenes I already knew, and not treating the novel as something that was happening afresh.
Did you finish it? Did it work for you?
I found myself having to push through. It’s repetitive and the stream of consciousness seems endless. The implicit hero-worship of the McMurphy character becomes a bit much. Against the dehumanizing forces of the mental institution – and, by extension, of the powerful state is one lone man etc… and it’s all about stressing his sexuality, potency and alpha male dominance as the means to fight against the modern forces of darkness. That his triumph over repressive castratrix Nurse Ratched is the dynamic holding the book together just makes the sexism even worse. There’s a terrible bit at the end when he lashes out and manages to rip open her nurse’s uniform in order to expose her breasts. Real or imaginary, it’s a silly scene. There’s an outmoded and tacky gender agenda right at the heart of the book.
What genre would you say it is?
It’s not a cheery book, at any rate. It’s a contemporary American classic, of course – somewhere between ‘On the Road’ and ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’, but it never engaged me in the same way those did.
What surprises did it hold – if any?
MacMurphy wears undershorts with pictures of whales on them, given to him by a former girlfriend who was a Literature Major. Is it reading too much into it to suppose him the Moby Dick of this story?
What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you?
The repeated bouts of electroshock therapy that our hero is forced to undergo, watched by the narrator, who says that, throughout all the convulsions, McMurphy’s face is covered with frost. It’s all horribly vivid.
What will you do with this copy now?
Not sure. Since I now have an e-book, I guess I’m free to give my orange bleeding-eyes Picador away. I still find myself loath to get rid of actual books. Though I don’t think I’d reread this one anytime soon.
Is it available today?
Yes, everywhere. No chance of this going out of print.
Give me a good quote:
“I’m too scared to get out of my chair. The staff always let me clean the room because they didn’t think I could hear, but now that they saw me lift my hand when McMurphy told me to, won’t they know I can hear? Won’t they figure I been hearing all these years, listening to secrets meant only for their ears? What’ll they do to me in that staff room if they know that?”