K is for Kesey

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Everyone knows the story of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. If you haven’t seen the film or read the book, you’ve seen one of the parodies floating around – Spaced’s being the best one, in this reviewer’s humble opinion. The main character, Randle P McMurphy, draws everyone around him like a moth to a flame, dominating the narrative. Right? Wrong. The book’s narrator is Chief Bromden, the apparently deaf and dumb Indian revealed to be the eyes and ears of the mental hospital.

This angle for the book gives it a whole new level, another perspective that I wasn’t expecting. McMurphy is larger than life, and Jack Nicholson’s performance in the film one of his best because the character was so well drawn by Ken Kesey. The fact that the reader does not get to know his innermost secrets works really well, as Chief idolises him in the same way as the other inmates do. In fact, he’s probably closest to him as their beds are next to each other’s. McMurphy figures out that Chief is not deaf and dumb, but has simply got used to everyone assuming that he cannot speak, and therefore cannot hear. McMurhpy gives him his voice back, and gradually moves him out of the fog that has engulfed him for so many years.

For those who don’t know the story, McMurphy breezes into the ward as a convict in prison for assault and battery, who decided that he would be better of serving his sentence in a comfier mental hospital. While there, he galvanises the other patients as far as he can, setting up poker tables, monopoly, televised sports games and even a fishing trip. Nurse Ratched presides over the ward, and is not pleased that everything is changing. There follows a battle of wills between McMurphy and Ratched where the reader is not always sure which is the patient, the clinically insane.

Mental health is obviously a big theme for the book, and it’s hard to decide sometimes who is struggling with serious issues and who is simply a ‘normal’ person, dealing with everyday issues. Chief sees everyone as machinery, being ‘fixed’ by the faceless Combine until they fall into line in the outside world. Amazingly, this way of looking at things becomes normal very quickly, although there’s still the nagging feeling that Chief is seriously damaged from years of electro shock therapy.

McMurphy validates his hallucinations quite late on in the book. Chief hears a noise under his bed, and looks down to see one of the aides scraping off chewing gum from the bed. I thought it was another one of Chief’s waking nightmares, until McMurphy props himself up on his elbow and asks what he thinks he’s doing down there. This small exchange makes the reader question each episode that the Chief has described – is he really certifiable, or is he seeing things the way they really are?

On the flipside, Nurse Ratched is clearly a few sandwiches short of a picnic. This is even pointed out by one of the ‘sane’ adults, another nurse who runs the Disturbed ward. If Nurse Ratched is meant to be normal and is clearly not, what does that say for the people in her care who are meant to be insane and don’t appear to be?

Kesey is described in the introduction (yes, I read those too) as being part of the Beat generation – Kerouac, Ginsberg and so on – but to be honest I felt that this was more because he was in the right place at the right time (he had a van they could borrow, for example) and less because of his writing. Maybe that’s being unfair – if anyone knows more about Kesey’s involvement with the beats, please feel free to share it. Whether he was on the periphery or not, the writing is beautiful. Chief conjures up nightmare images of people carved open to reveal machinery underneath, clouds of cotton enveloping and disorientating all of those inside. The characters are all sharply defined, from the hapless Billy Bibbit to the closet homosexual and McMurphy’s rival, Harding.

If you’ve seen the film, read the book. If you’ve seen clips of Jack Nicholson as McMurphy on E4’s 100,000 Greatest Actors Ever Countdown Part 5, read the book. If you’re interested in mental health, read this book. I cried like a small child at the end because Kesey created his characters so skilfully and subtly, I didn’t even realise I cared until I finished the last page.

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