Monday, May 24, 2010

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest / by Ken Kesey

Among the major contributors to the American counterculture movement of the 1960's was author Ken Kesey. His relationships with former beatniks Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg, along with public figures like the controversial Dr. Timothy Leary, and his passion for music by The Grateful Dead, helped fuse the beat generation to the hippie movement and initiate drug experimentation. The financial freedom afforded by One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1962) provided him with the opportunity to accommodate large, lavish parties--labeled "Acid Tests"--at his private residence where, in addition to progressive rock music, strobe lights and fluorescent paint, LSD was liberally provided and its use highly encouraged.
"I'm not saying they killed him. They just worked on him. The way they're working on you". (p. 208)
"But I tried, though." (p. 121)
All social deviant Randle McMurphy wanted was to avoid hard time. A free-wheeling, happy go-lucky and thoroughly unapologetic individual, McMurphy has recently been convicted on a battery charge to go along with his lengthy list of prior offenses. Thinking a mental institution a better alternative to jail, he feigns insanity for the purpose of serving out, what he thinks, will be an easier sentence. He arrives expecting something not dissimilar to a vacation, but finds to his disappointment, that the asylum is no cake walk. The ward to which McMurphy is sent is run by the imperious, domineering Nurse Ratched, or the "Big Nurse", whose unchallenged authority has systematically subjugated all the (male) patients into a wretched lot of despairing, emasculated, and hopelessly dysfunctional individuals.
McMurphy's arrival instantly changes things. His irrepressible charm, vibrant energy, coarse nature and overt references to Nurse Ratched's sexuality immediately wins over the other patients who feel, for the first time in a long time, the giddy thrill of rebellion and self-empowerment. Among them is the oversized Native Amerian "Chief" Bromden, a self-repressed deaf mute who shares a room with McMurphy and proceeds to relate all of his colorful, entertaining exploits. Through McMurphy's example, everyone suddenly finds "life" in everything from morning meals to group therapy sessions to the world beyond the ward. But the temporary wave of insubordination hasn't totally overwhelmed Nurse Ratched who combats McMurphy's antics with her own cold, derisive acts of restriction and subjection. Soon the pair's escalating battle for control of the ward becomes an all out war, one which can't help but get ugly, and which may define far more than just who's in charge.
'Cuckoo's Nest' really is brilliant book, timeless in its own unique way. And though most may only know the story (as well as the title) from the award-winning film adaptation, the novel resonates at an especially superior level. Just the premise is as idiosyncratic as anything before or sense. Kesey evokes a myriad of psychological and existential themes, primarily with the character of McMurphy, but also through the transformation of the other patients like Chief Bromden, McMurphy's inadvertent proselyte who assumes the role of narrator. Dynamically cultivated through the figures of both McMurphy and the Chief is not just a story, but a thinkpiece on dehumanization, the limiting power of institutions, practical human experience, self-revelation and sexual identity. Through McMurphy, the other patients, many of them interred voluntarily, learn to live the lives they're too afraid to live. They're allowed the freedom and confidence to, for the first time, refute the overpowering condemnation of the institutional realm--"The Combine"--which has succeeded in subduing their natural instincts and inhibitions for so long.

1 comment:

Librarian the Luke said...

Some reviewers find the book symptomatic of the chauvinism and misogyny that was common in the counter culture movement. Did you notice that at all?