Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily
This is the second of two Ken Kesey novels on the 1001 list. Kara reviewed the other, Sometime a Great Notion back in October 2012.
I’m not quite sure how I made it to adulthood without having read or sat through the film version of this novel. It meant that I came to the novel with some trepidation as my hazy impression was that it was going to be a rather grim read.
As it turns out I need not have worried. So all two of you who haven’t read this classic piece of fiction, take it from me, you will enjoy it. I most certainly did.
The setting is a ward in a psychiatric hospital in Oregon, USA. It is the 1960s and electric shock therapy is still in vogue, as is the frontal lobotomy. We are taken in to this world by our narrator, and main witness to events, a native American known as “Chief” Bromden. Bromden has been in the ward since the end of the war. He had stopped talking and had hidden himself behind people perceiving him to be deaf and mute. He is an astute observer of people and their motivations.
Bromden introduces us to the Big Nurse, Miss Ratched, and to all of the other inmates on her totally controlled ward. The Big Nurse is a stickler. There is to be no disturbance, no making waves or creating disorder and certainly no going against ‘ward policy’. She runs a tight ship and brings down anyone who tries to mess with her control, patient and staff alike. This is how Bromden describes her at the start of the novel.
What she dreams of there in the center of those wires is a world of precision efficiency and tidiness like a pocket watch with a glass back, a place where the schedule is unbreakable and all the patients who aren’t Outside, obedient under her beam […]
Bromden’s descriptions of the ward and the inmates are brutal to read. This, describing the morning routine.
The Wheelers swing dead log legs out on the floor and wait like seated statues for somebody to roll chairs in to them. The Vegetables piss the bed, activating an electric shock and buzzer, rolls them off on the tile where the black boys can hose them down and get them in clean greens….
Six-forty-five the shavers buzz and the Acutes line up in alphabetic order at the mirrors, A, B, C, D…. The walking Chronics like me walk in when the Acutes are done, then the Wheelers are wheeled in. The three old guys left, a film of yellow mold on the loose hide under their chins, they get shaved in their lounge chairs in the day room, a leather strap across the forehead to keep them from flopping around under the shaver.
Then one day Randle Patrick McMurphy arrives and a titanic struggle for the hearts and minds of the patients, and the ward, begins. McMurphy is puzzled by the behaviour of ‘the Acutes’ – those men, mostly there by their own choice, who the medical officials believe are capable of being cured – and he sets about nudging and cajoling them into rebellion against the Big Nurse.
Kesey incorporates some very sound comments on the state of our mental health, especially our ability to see humour in darkness, through McMurphy’s determination to get the men to laugh. Here are two quotes, a few pages apart, that show this emphasis.
Maybe he couldn’t understand why weren’t able to laugh yet, but he knew you can’t really be strong until you can see a funny side to things.
While McMurphy laughs. Rocking farther and farther backward against the cabin top, spreading his laugh out across the water – laughing at the girl, at the guys, at George, at me sucking my bleeding thumb, at the captain back at the pier and the bicycle rider and the service-station guys and the five thousand houses and the Big Nurse and all of it. Because he knows you have to laugh at the things that hurt you just to keep yourself in balance, just to keep the world from running you plumb crazy. He know there’s a painful side; he knows my thumb smarts and his girl friend has a bruised breast and the doctor is losing his glasses, but he won’t let the pain blot out the humor no more’n he’ll let the humor blot out the pain.
I found the story to be full of humour and yet profoundly moving. I would find myself smiling as I read passages, only to be deeply saddened and ponderous a few pages later. The balancing of these two aspects was done terrifically well. This is easily a five star read, in my opinion. My only negative comment is that I found it incredibly slow going through the first two thirds of the book. I have no idea why. The language is easy to read and the descriptions are very clear, and yet I felt like I was walking through treacle. It was slow and sticky, and slightly frustrating. If you find yourself with the same problem, do stick with it, it is definitely worth it in the end.
And now, maybe, I can shake that rather wild-eyed image of Jack Nicholson and replace it with my own inner image of McMurphy.
Happy reading everyone.
kesey never saw the movie. didn’t want nicholson for the part, instead he wanted gene hackman.
he said they took his book and turned it into rocky
I haven’t seen the film other than maybe snippets, but I can say that Nicholson bears no resemblance to my mental image of McMurphy. I’m not even sure that Gene Hackman would have either.
I guess that’s the beauty of books – your own mind plays such a large part in bringing them ‘to life’. 🙂