I finished the Ken Kesey classic last weekend and have been digesting it, mulling it over, letting it settle. It's an incredible book that works beautifully on many clearly crafted levels, and yet feels somehow organic, as if Kesey is making it all up as he goes along. Like he's composing it around a campfire. The experience of reading it is more like hearing it.
Beyond the anti-authoritarian allegory (as a rabble-rouser provokes a henpecked group of asylum patients to find their dignity and stand up against the wickedly controlling head nurse and the social machinery she represents), the book is most remarkable for Kesey's choice of narrator.
Chief Bromden, a self-described "half-breed Indian," is our eyes and ears. An indigenous, WWII battle scarred, shock treatment victim who pretends he can't hear or speak -- which makes him privy to the secrets of the ward, among both the patients and the staff -- and it's a brilliant choice.
Kesey makes Bromden's visions soar. We see the world as he sees it, come to life, phantasmagorical, sometimes terrifying, sometimes sublime.
For instance, within the first five pages, we meet the Big Nurse (Ms. Ratched) who runs the ward, the book's heavy, as she comes down the hall, sweeps past Bromden, and goes after the ward's orderlies whom she oversees.
Here is Bromden's version:
She's going to tear those bastards limb from limb, she's so furious. She's swelling up, swells till her back's splitting out the white uniform and she's let her arms section out long enough to wrap around the three of them five, six times. She looks around with a swivel of her huge head. Nobody up to see, just old Broom Bromden the half-breed Indian back there hiding behind his mop and can't talk to call for help. So she really lets herself go and blows up bigger and bigger, big as a tractor, so big I can smell the machinery inside the way you smell a motor pulling too big a load. I hold my breath and figure, My God this time they're gonna do it! This time they let the hate build up too high and overloaded and they're gonna tear one another to pieces before they realize what they're doing!
The book is full of passages like this. Moments when otherwise normal events are cast in a new and hallucinatory light by this singular narrator. No one else sees things the way Chief Bromden does, and yet through this "unreliable" middle man we not only get a more colorful view of the world, but perhaps a more truthful one.
And all this before we even get to Randle McMurphy, the book's hero, the brawling, cussing, card-cheating, force of life and energy that slams onto the ward (and into Nurse Ratched) like a happy-go-lucky, red-headed sledgehammer. McMurphy goes joyfully to war with the Big Nurse, and slowly but surely drags the collection of characters along with him.
But still, the aspect of the book I most admired was the narration.
Another example, about halfway through the book, as Bromden wonders if the orderlies or nurses have started to guess he can hear -- McMurphy figured it out right away --
There's a black boy leaning against the wall near the door, arms crossed, pink tongue tip darting back and forth over his lips, watching us sitting in front of the TV set. His eyes dart back and forth like his tongue and stop on me, and I see his leather eyelids raise a little. He watches me for a long time, and I know he's wondering about the way I acted in the group meeting. Then he comes off the wall with a lurch, breaking contact, and goes to the broom closet and brings back a bucket of soapy water and a sponge, drags my arm up and hangs the bucket bale over it, like hanging a kettle on a fireplace boom.
Nothing as overt as the monstrous imagery of the earlier passage, but instead there's an almost stream of consciousness tactile quality. You can feel the "leather eyelids," you can hear him come "off the wall with a lurch, breaking contact." Glorious.
I could go on and on, but let me leave you with one final passage to this fantastic book. Near the end -- an end that comes too quickly, too fast, like a jolt, but is still somehow perfect -- McMurphy finagles a way to get the patients out on a fishing trip off the Oregon coast. It is here that the men make real strides toward taking control, ownership, and responsibility for themselves.
Bromden describes the moment by re-appropriating some of the imagery he used for the Big Nurse in the opening:
It started slow and pumped itself full, swelling the men bigger and bigger. I watched, part of them, laughing with them--and somehow not with them. I was off the boat, blown up off the water and skating the wind with those black birds, high above myself, and I could look down and see myself and the rest of the guys, see the boat rocking there in the middle of those diving birds, see McMurphy surrounded by his dozen people, and watch them, us, swinging a laughter that rang out on the water in ever-widening circles, farther and farther, until it crashed up on beaches all over the coast, on beaches all over all coasts, in wave after wave after wave.
Dark things are still to come before the tale is finished, but in that moment, a glimpse of freedom long forgotten.
If you haven't read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, I cannot recommend it highly enough. Do yourself a favor and take this one on. Stick with it and you'll be richly rewarded.
If you have read it, share your thoughts -- especially if you read it in the decade after it was first published in 1962. I'd love to hear your memories of what it felt like to encounter Bromden and McMurphy and the Big Nurse in the heart of the 1960s. I can literally only imagine.
(Hat tip to Bruce for the recommendation. Right again.)