Thursday, October 24, 2013

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey (21 down, 79 to go)

This is the first time I’ve read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Ken Kesey. The book is a post-modern novel, set in a mental hospital, probably in the late 1950s. It is narrated by Bromden, a giant Native American patient in the hospital. He is, as you might guess, not entirely reliable as a narrator.

My rating: 3 1/2 of 5 stars

I enjoyed One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, though it is a little...oh I'll say unnerving. As you can imagine, treatment in mental institutions was remarkably different than today. At least I hope so. Having never been institutionalized myself, I don't really know, but Kesey reportedly worked in a mental institution, so I assume he knows what he was writing about. I believe the novel was an exposé of sorts of the degrading and inhumane practices of the day.

There are three main characters: Nurse Ratched, the head nurse that rules the ward with absolute authority. She bullies uncooperative doctors, has three dim witted and cruel orderlies to carry out her will, and she manipulates the patients with subtlety, veiled threats, token rewards, and in extreme cases electro-shock therapy or even lobotomy.  The ward is her domain, and she has no apparent interest in healing or helping the patients, just a perverse ambition to control. Some of the patients seem to have little wrong with them other than low self-esteem, and Nurse Ratched feeds their insecurities, to keep them weak and under her control.

Randall McMurphy, a new patient challenges her control from day one. He is quick witted, sly, worldly, and probably not truly in need of psychiatric care. He is a gambler, con-man, letch, and overall scoundrel. He manages to get transferred from a prison work farm because he thought the hospital would be an easier life. He quickly becomes a hero to many of the other patients. There are a series of minor contests of will between McMurphy and the Big Nurse. Nurse Ratched wins most, but in each instance, McMurphy rises again, and continues to bring her down a notch at each turn. At the same time, he bolsters the confidence and defiance of the other patients, and even the timid doctor that had been under Nurse Ratched's thumb. The reader learns to despise Nurse Ratched, cheer for McMurphy and yearn for an epic showdown between the two.

The narrator is a giant half Native-American, named Bromden, affectionately and/or mockingly referred to as Chief. His father was an actual Chief, so the title is less ironic than it seems. Bromden has been in the hospital since the end of WW II, and has always feigned to be deaf and dumb. By this ploy, he overhears things not intended for patients. To other characters in the story, Chief is barely a person, just a hulking presence of no threat or consequence. But the reader learns his thoughts, and respects, even loves the gentle giant. The Chief is a good person, but also truly delusional, though it might be the result of "treatment". McMurphy suspects Chief can hear and speaks to him as if he does; eventually Chief reveals his secret first to McMurphy, then to everyone.

The epic contest does indeed finally erupt, and although there is poetic justice, it comes with tragic consequence. There is one joyous result, but I'll spare the spoiler and let the reader discover it themselves.

The title of the book is derived from a nursery rhyme the Chief's grandmother sang to him.
Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,Apple seed and apple thorn,Wire, briar, limber lockThree geese in a flockOne flew EastOne flew WestAnd one flew over the cuckoo's nest

Film Renditions: The1975 film starring Jack Nicholson won five Academy Awards and also starred Christopher Lloyd and a barely recognizable Danny DeVito. The movie was reasonably true to the book, but didn't even attempt to tell the entire story from Chief's perspective. That made it less enjoyable to me, though it was marvelously cast and well acted.