Everyone ready to discuss this one then?
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is exactly why we should perservere with the bookclub, after a less than smooth beginning. It is a modern classic, with an interesting theme, and is a book that you might not necessarily chose to pick up if left to your own devices. Like me, you'd maybe assume that since you've seen the film there's no need to bother with the book.
As it happens, OFOTCN is a rare example of both the film and the book being perfecty complementary. The film is really a Jack Nicholson vehicle, and as such the story tends to focus around Randle P. McMurphy. The book, on the other hand, is told from the perspective of Chief Bromdon, so has an entirely different feel to it.
The first person narrative tends to dip in and out of the Chief's psychosis in a way that can't be conveyed in film format. The Chief visualises the goings-on of the hospital in a kind of dream state - Nurse Ratched morphs before his eyes into a kind of demon; the air fills with water causing the Chief to float between room. It is all so vividly described with no concession to the fact of his hallucination that you're left to wonder if the way the Chief sees the world is perhaps some kind of truthful depiction, a feeling that carries through the whole novel.
The underlying theme of OFOTCN is the power of authority. The power that people in particular situations wield over each other - whether it is the power of authority that Nurse Ratched weilds over the inmates through humiliation and medication, or the power of authority that McMurphy wields in the ward (through the respect given to him by the other inmates). The Chief conceptualises the power of the hospital, the government, the state as being that of a single entity - The Combine. Through the Chief's viewpoint, we see The Combine as a vast machine (literal and metaphorical) which exists solely to homogenise people, to smooth out the wrinkles and bumps in society.
The Chief sees The Combine wherever he looks, in the sometimes monstrous form of Nurse Ratched, or in the government men who took his father's land. Indeed, through clever use of language, once again you're left wondering if maybe the Chief isn't right, maybe The Combine is a real thing? I think this is partly due to the fact that both he and the rest of inmates don't seem particularly disturbed, just eccentric maybe. Indeed, most of them are voluntary inmates, there of their own volition. Is the hospital there to cure them of a real problem, or to damp out the spikes of non-conformity that exist?
That most of the inmates are just normal men with normal issues (fear of homosexuality, fear of sexuality) underlines a strong sense of emasculation in the narritive. The Harding character, who's expressions and mannarisms are described at least as well as they were portrayed in the film, cuts a quite pathetic character - his self-loathing at his repressed homosexuality, combined with his inability to please his beautiful wife - and exemplifies this emasculation. Similarly, the character of Billy who is so afraid of women (especially his mother) that he has attempted suicide on numerous occasions, represents another side of The Combine's dominance. Both Harding and Billy are victims of Combine oppression, this time expressed through the power of women over men.
The Chief sees this oppression in himself as a literal physical "shrinking". As McMurphy reinvigorates the Chief, he becomes re-masculated somehow, ultimately gaining enough physical presence to break free of the hospital. Kesey casts McMurphy as the lost spirit of old-mankind - wild, unpredictable, undiminished - something that is missing from the Chief and the rest of the inmates. See how McMurphy sweeps through the ward, giving George Sorenson back his boat, giving Billy Bibbit the power of sex (and ultimately setting him free) and giving the Chief back his physicality. Even to the point where his violence injures the oppressing female presence (Nurse Ratched) and allows the inmates to scatter or flee. That McMurphy does not survive is ultimately of no consequence, since his invigorating spirit has been passed on to the now-free inmates.
Ultimately, I see Kesey's novel as a scathing critique of modern society. His themes of authority and emasculation speak of a world in which the eccentric is shunned and contained, "cured" ultimately by electricity; where the powerful and physical are repressed by the weak and the beaurocratic. But it is a world in which all it takes is a McMurphy to ignite that which was once thought lost.
Excellent novel, very recommended.