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Wednesday 1 April 2009

EED Bookclub Month 2: One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

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.


  1. I think I've been a victim of a keylogger, basically Dr Dave has taken all my writings and blatantly passed them off as his own.

    An outrage the combine itself would be proud of!

    The book was fantastic, I enjoyed it far more than the film. Once again it proves with your own imagination the written word can take you to places motion pictures just simply can't.

    The books breakdown of characters was beautifully done, explaining the nuances of Ratched's emotionless visage works far better than just seeing an old sow on screen.

    Randall is a mans man. Big, brawling, boisterous, boozing, bullying bear of a man. He uses is sheer force of character to bully the patients into finding inner strength to regain their manhood.

    In a good twist this crystalises in the moment he finds out just how powerless he is in the asylum. It's all down to his hated enemy nurse Ratched when, indeed if, he is released. No clock watching like a hardened jailbird, its all behaviour based.

    After initially attempting to toe the line, he sees the impact this is having on his fellow men and reverts to type. Ultimately sacrificing himself to give the others the capacity to change and escape.

    The journey is well worth the investment, but the chief is the absolute star of the peice. His imaginary enemy "the combine" and it's global infiltration and pollution is a great idea. Well implemented and his escape from that more important than leaving the actual asylum.

    The social commentary is of course utterly damning and scathing. Sparing to blows in letting the reader know that their idylic society comes at a heavy cost to many others.

    A real page turner, which is still very relevant today. Loved it.

  2. After one strike-out for the Book Club, this was a major home run. One Flew Over was an extremely absorbing read. Twenty or so pages in I was already deeply sucked into a world of great realism (and surrealism) created by a seriously able writer. You can read good books year in, year out. Great books, like great music are a qualitatively different experience. OFOTCN hit that spot, with confidence, from the beginning. Like all great books, it hands out pleasure and insight in equal portions and managed to invoke intense feelings of great amusement, flesh-creeping tension and anger.

    The combined influences of One Flew Over and acid more or less wrecked the author. The book wrecked him because he felt that novelists’ later work is a dilution of their first piece and that he could never live up to it again. With the acid, like all stimulants, the initial gifts it gave at first in the shape of insights and the creation of the book later gave way to an opportunity cost of the LSD frying him up pretty good for life.

    Famously, before the book was written, Kesey participated in legal drugs’ trials within an asylum and afterwards got a job there as an assistant. It doesn’t take much of a reach to see how the schizophrenic views of the Chief might have evolved from a man who lay on a bed looking out of a tiny window while tripping his tits off and then who came back to look at others and one presumes therefore back at himself in the dual states of the drugged-up and the straight.

    Later, after the book and a much less successful second novel was published, he got famous for riding around on a bus in the sixties with his Merry Pranksters evangelising the societal change potential of the mass ingestion of psychedelics. Ironically, for someone who wrote about the conflict between raw human instinct and values versus “The System” in One Flew Over, his group and Timothy Leary’s appear not to have been able to live the hippie spirit of getting on together and had fairly notable (if one imagines, relaxed) series of disagreements about how the psychedelic revolution should be handled. Kesey bought a farm, stuck a sign up in the drive that said “No” to dissuade his previous comrades from contacting him again and then under the influence of the legacy of the book and all those tabs, didn’t write another thing for a quarter of a century.

    I’d echo many of the things that Dave and Shedir said above. All the themes they talk about are central and I’ll just add a couple of additional, rather than replacing, thoughts. I should add, if you’ve seen the film, you still know bugger all about this book and the pleasure that can be got from reading it.

    Above all, as previously stated, it’s a book about collision. Collision between natural behaviour and constrictive rules and regulations. It’s a book written in 1959 about the collision of the old and the new which works both for the fifties in themselves and also for the fifties beginning to morph into what would become the sixties. McMurphy’s initials are RPM, a fact I would never have picked up but for the forward, but there’s a nod to the epoch-changing effect of rock and roll that was seen as a fundamental and very real threat to the fabric of society. Not a big point, but one that sets the tone for how this book works at different levels simultaneously.

    It’s also a book laden with sex. McMurphy is a walking fucking and fighting animal with charges against him for rape – statutory so he claims. The orderlies in the asylum may have sodomised inmates. Billy is repressed beyond belief and finds redemption in the arms of a golden hearted hooker before the bitter consequences that follow. Harding and his wife are fighting their relationship issues with assertions of rampant sexuality while denying the real problems below. Even the Chief’s memories include a dream-like recollection of the seductive power of a meeting with girls working at a cotton farm. Nurse Ratched, for everything else that she stands for, wears starched uniforms that tightly constrict and minimise her very ample breasts. As a physical expression of essential human spirit which is outside of the system of the Combine, she tries to cover up and deny them. Kesey uses sex as a clear, in-the-contemporary-reader’s-face, assertion of the power of normal human instincts and their universal presence in everyone. 50’s Combine America could attempt to reject Kesey’s other arguments but they couldn’t deny the basic truth of the natural versus the artificial which is the issue at the heart of the whole book.

    I also liked the way Kesey writes up McMurphy with his failures and issues. He doesn’t try and proselytise his cause through a virtuous martyr. McMurphy is rough, he doesn’t mind taking money serially off the other inmates as much as he comes to sacrifice himself for them, he has a rape charge (but not conviction) against him, he foolhardily treats his confinement as a game of no consequence until he realises he has no release date, his knuckles are all scarred up from a hundred fights, he learned his sex off a nine year old girl as a child himself – not a fifteen year old, as if to make the point, he’s impotent to save characters who die brutally in the book. Above all, he is clearly conflicted between his selfless encouragement of the others and the will for self preservation throughout. He plans an escape on the final night but succumbs to drunkenness to pass out and be conveyed not to the electric shock therapy that he sees off so magnificently but to a mechanical drill to his brain.

    Kesey seems to be saying ‘yes it’s raw and uncivilised’ but compared to the Combine, McMurphy is a natural reality infinitely preferable to the multiple fails that the Combine of society and the asylum has inflicted on all of its inmates. It’s also no coincidence that many of the inmates are voluntary. It underlines McMurphy’s central message to everyone, characters and readers alike, to make a deliberate conscious decision to overthrow the crap that is imposed on them. The whole book is a cry to arms for valuing basic humanity for all its possible failures and rough edges and having the confidence to reject the moralistic, self-serving culture of authoritarianism.

    Whether McMurphy is dealing with the black orderlies, the inmates, the hookers in his life or Nurse Ratched, he does so with an open and honest heart. It’s no coincidence the Chief is an American Indian for the issues of race (and of course the allegory of an untouched America before society and system is imposed) and that should clearly see off the laughable undergrad accusations of racism in the book.

    One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest reminds you, without plagiarising, of a host of books before it that deal with Big Issues when people still wrote literature that tried to tackle Big Issues. McMurphy is the product of a prior era running head first into a conflict with 50’s laced-up morality. He’s out of date but has a brutish integrity. The language around the black characters in the book is jarring today but is another of Kesey’s mechanisms. He’s a mash up of, weirdly, the purity of Tess of the D’Urbervilles who represents an allegory for rural England being overrun by the industrial revolution and the Carbine of landed gentry exploiting simpler people, the intellectual revulsion of Winston Smith in 1984 and the raw human sexuality and anti-bullshit of a modern 60’s about to start.

    The great thing about this book is that it sparks a hundred different thoughts. It is a very very easy read but a hugely provoking one. Just like all great literature. If you missed this, get it now. Great call, Shed.

  3. You know, I found myself feeling slightly uncomfortable about some of the descriptions of the "black boys". There seemed to be a very deliberate sense of creating a goblin-esque class of underlings who served the wicked white queen. The orderlies are portrayed as slovenly, grunting, hunched, vicious yet cowardly. And always emphasised as being black.

    Of course, this is all from a privileged 21st century perspective. I expect it was the case that the menial jobs like this were taken by the poor, black underclass in 50s America. There's even a quaint kind of ethnic-hierarchy in place - the downtrodden, oppressed native American looks down on the more downtrodden, oppressed black men. Nonetheless, it was quite jarring to read.

    Also, it's interesting that you picked up on the similarity to previous literature that dealt with the encroaching wave of industrialisation. I felt a very strong similarity with Tolkein's Lord Of The Rings, which deals with similar anti-industrialisation themes. Tenuous, but it was there.

  4. Better late than never. Ok, first of all i enjoyed it alot more than the movie. And yes the whole authority story is as good as ever, the ingredients are all there, but the way he uses the situations, and the situations themselfs are so exaggerated. I found the conflicts immature, dumbed down. Same with the insanity in a way, its too specific where it shouldnt and and not specific enough in other parts. It kinda felt like a boys novel in parts, you know, like the westerns and agent books at the grocery market. Big, strong, muscles looking all cool and badass. Yeah, i know, metaphores. But it could have been done better, smoother, more adult even :)
    I really expected it to dig deeper, show more. Still enjoyed it though, but i kinda want to learn that there is a full version available.