Unusually for me, I actually watched the film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest before acquainting myself with the story in its original form. I enjoyed it so much, however, that I wanted to pick it up in paperback as soon as I possibly could. I subsequently made it part of my Classics Club list so that I had more chance of actually reading it. It also slotted in nicely with my stack of American Literature Month reads.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey’s 1962 debut novel, is set in an Oregon State Mental Hospital, ‘with a strict, unbending routine’. The whole is ruled over by the tyrannical Nurse Ratched, surely one of the most memorable and truly formidable characters in literature. The arrival of R.P. McMurphy, ‘the swaggering fun-loving trickster with a devilish grin’, serves to shake things up; he ‘battles Nurse Ratched and the ward regime’, challenging everyone’s beliefs about the concept of madness as he goes. ‘Who, of them all, is really insane?’ asks the book’s blurb.
The novel’s title is taken from a children’s folk rhyme. It is narrated by Chief, a largely silent character: a ‘six-foot-eight sweeping machine, scared of its own shadow’. He begins the tale by telling us of the way in which: ‘They’re mopping up when I come out the dorm, all three of them sulking and hating everything… When they hate like this, better if they don’t see me. I creep along the wall quiet as dust in my canvas shoes, but they got special sensitive equipment detects my fear and they all look up, all three at once, eyes glittering out of the black faces like the hard glitter of radio tubes out of the back of our old radio’. Chief is such an interestingly-positioned narrator: ‘They don’t bother not talking out loud about their hate secrets when I’m nearby because they think I’m deaf and dumb. Everybody think so. I’m cagey enough to fool them that much… They can’t tell so much about you if you got your eyes closed’. One cannot help but believe in every word he says, particularly with regard to the following statement: ‘It is still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen’.
Many narrative techniques can be found within One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Chief’s voice could almost be termed prosaic in a couple of instances, but he serves to move the story along incredibly well, and the pace of the whole is just about perfect. The present tense has been used to good effect too. Chief is most informative; he tells us how the wards are split up and how the whole is managed, and shows us the diversity of the patients. The way in which Kesey has used different levels of insanity works marvellously. He is also adept at demonstrating the brutality within the institution, particularly with regard to some of the treatments used.
The exaggerations which Chief makes about Nurse Ratched serve to make her come across as a grotesque and terrifying character: ‘She’s going to tear the black bastards limb from limb, she’s so furious. She’s swelling up… She really lets herself go and her painted smile twists, stretches to an open snarl, and she blows up bigger and bigger, big as a tractor…’. He also describes McMurphy in a memorable manner: ‘The way he talks, his wink, his loud talk, his swagger all remind me of a car salesman or a stock auctioneer’. Of himself, and his reasons for being committed, McMurphy says: ‘If it gets me outta those damned pea fields I’ll be whatever their little heart desires, be it psychopath or mad dog or werewolf, because I don’t care if I never see another weeding’ hoe to my dying day’. The exaggerated elements throughout One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest become almost make-believe in their style; there is a definite and rather well adjusted strand of magical realism which can be traced from time to time.
Kesey’s dialogue is most amusing in places, and the entirety of his debut has been well stylised. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is incredibly engrossing and well worth a read, even if you are familiar with the film – the shift in perspective alone makes it a worthwhile exercise.