One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
"The ward is a factory for the Combine. It's for fixing up mistakes made in the neighborhoods and in the schools and in the churches, the hospital is. When a completed product goes back out into society, all fixed up good as new, better than new sometimes, it brings joy to the Big Nurse's heart [...]"
Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) is without doubt a classic novel, one that has won wide acclaim and has been frequently placed on various lists of best American novels of the 20th century. Thus - since I do not share this universal awe about the book - it must mean that either all these professional critics and millions of readers are wrong or that I am wrong: guess which one is more likely. But let's clarify: I actually like the novel and recommend it without reservations - it is just that I think it is quite far from a masterpiece.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, reviews of One Flew available on the Internet: summaries, synopses, digests, analyses, studies, some of them sleek and neatly packaged products directly addressed to clueless or dishonest students - as the book is often used in the literature or writing classes - who are unable or unwilling to write essays or term papers on the subject of the novel. My writing of a full-fledged review would thus be pointless: I don't have any professional qualifications and I will not discuss most of the obvious themes and motifs of the novel - mental illness, rebellion vs. conformity, authority, power games, etc. - and will instead limit myself to one particular interpretation of the text, one that resonates with me the strongest.
The novel is narrated by "Chief" Bromden, a half-breed Native American from a tribe that had once resided near The Dalles on the Columbia River until the area was taken over by government for construction of a hydroelectric dam. The Chief is a resident of a "mental institution", a hospital for "the insane" in western Oregon. Many patients are there voluntarily: they are not really mentally ill, and not in the slightest insane - they are simply not well adjusted to life in the society, the life on the "Outside". They prefer to stay "Inside", which provides safety of the easy-to-follow routine. The ward is ruled with the iron fist by Nurse Ratched, the Big Nurse, who is the sole authority on every single issue, no matter how big or small. One of the reasons that she succeeds in being omnipotent is that she skillfully keeps appearances of patients participating in the decision making.
The novel is a powerful satire on democracy. The patients in the hospital seem to participate in making decisions about various aspects of their "therapies". Yet, they really are not given any choice as they are skillfully manipulated by the Big Nurse, who - at least until McMurphy arrives and throws things out of whack - always succeeds in ensuring that the patients vote exactly as she wants them to. Exactly the same happens on the "Outside", in the real society, where the citizens - great majority of them naive, uneducated or otherwise unable to understand the political manipulations - exercise their right to vote and elect for all levels of offices people who will diligently work against the interests of the very voters who have elected them. Nurse Ratched epitomizes the "Combine", the totality of forces that control everything, both "Inside" and "Outside." Today, in the world of massive disinformation overflowing from the Internet, the world where everybody is able to post whatever baloney they please, the message of Mr. Kesey's novel is particularly astute: people's influence on their future is an illusion, democracy is just a word, and we are all controlled by forces that thrive on our conceit, naiveté, greed, and stupidity.
(By the way, Thomas Frank explains the mechanisms that lead citizens to vote for politicians and policies that will ensure those very citizens' permanent powerlessness and often poverty in his magnificent
What's the Matter with Kansas
My main gripe about One Flew, the flaw that prevents me from considering a four-star rating for this good novel, is that the events in the plot have been selected and sequenced solely for one purpose - to make a great story. Mr. Kesey does not worry about plausibility or psychological realism of the dynamics of conflict between McMurphy and the Big Nurse; he is just bent on producing a "great American story", with a beginning, the middle and the end, one with a lesson and a message, deep but not too deep, seemingly sad, yet eventually leading the readers to smile through their tears: oh yes, the forces of good do in fact prevail!
Finally, a disclaimer is needed: I may be biased by having watched (twice) the very good movie adaptation by Miloš Forman that in 1975 won several Oscars. Forty years ago, when I watched the movie, I was extremely irritated by Jack Nicholson's cheap shtick (for which he won one of the Oscars!) in the role of Randle McMurphy. I am afraid that Mr. Nicholson's low-grade theatrics might have prejudiced me a little against the novel.
To sum up: a great story, yet full of cheap manipulation of readers' emotions and not so great a novel.
Three and a quarter stars.
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