This is another selection from my deck of cards that I just got around to reading last month. Though, for some reason, I’ve had a copy of this book since high school. The same copy, mind you. Which means that for ten years (jesus, ten years!) I moved this exact same book across countries and states, from college dormitories, to graduate family housing, to cheap apartment living, to this new house…without having even read it. I swear I’m not a hoarder.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was written by Ken Kesey and published in 1962. Kesey drew from his own experiences as an orderly at a mental health institute to write the book. Told from the perspective of half-Native American patient “Chief” Bromden, it tells the story of Randle McMurphy after he joins the psychiatric ward to avoid staying at a work farm to serve out his prison sentence. The story focuses on the power struggle between McMurphy and the ward’s overseer, Nurse Ratched. During the course of the book, McMurphy antagonizes Nurse Ratched, upsets the established routines and rules, and incites the patients to stand up for themselves instead of being intimidated and emasculated. By virtue of his strong, independent, and sexually liberated (for the 50s) character, he becomes a natural leader and source of inspiration for the mentally ill patients, most of whom are in the ward voluntarily (and therefore in control of when they can deem themselves as cured). The narrator’s story (Chief Bromden) is also told during the course of the book, though he immediately proves to be an unreliable narrator. Highly paranoid, he is convinced that the entire ward is operated by a mechanical collective known as The Combine that seeks to control society. The story culminates in a series of disturbing events, with some interesting role reversals (that’s about as much as I want to say about where the book goes from the main premise so as not to spoil anything, though I imagine it’s a fairly well known story at this point).
As a book, it is very straightforward. The narrator may be unreliable but never in the sense that you don’t understand or believe what is going on, only in the sense that he is irrationally paranoid and prone to (obvious) hallucinations. The main themes regard authority and rebellion, and the insidious control exerted by Nurse Ratched. The book also comments on the oppressive nature of mental wards at the time that made them comparable to prisons.
The book was successful during the time it was published, particularly as it criticized American institutions during a time of social upheaval. Kesey would go on to consume massive quantities of LSD and become a main figure of the hippy movement (among many other notable things).
Overall, I enjoyed the book. It is a slow starter and doesn’t really count as radical or eye-opening in today’s age, but it is a good yarn. McMurphy ends up a much more complicated character than I’ve described here, and there are several notable supporting characters. The ending really shouldn’t have taken me by surprise but the last quarter of the book was the most gripping portion for me.
Also, an aside (cause where else can I say it?): the movie is really not that much like the book. I didn’t finish the movie because it was all crazy people and lots of yelling and Doc Brown throwing a hissy fit…and the book was not that at all. Unless I missed something in the book, what I took away from it was that the inmates were not that crazy at all, they just weren’t conforming to what people expected and they weren’t able to conform. Sure, there was some degree of mental instability, but overall I got the impression that they could mostly be helped if not for the domineering and dehumanizing nature of their care. But Jack Nicholson is awesome.