Book Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

I picked this up in an airport bookshop fairly recently, and for the first time. It seems that it has been given a new lease of life as a result, most likely, of the re-release of the 1975 Oscar-winning film by Milos Forman. My Penguin Classics copy was printed in 2005, and contains a new introduction written in 2002 – in the book’s 40th anniversary year – but with the new edition sparked by Kesey’s death from liver cancer (in 2001).

The novel remains an excoriating drawing of the life and treatment of the residents of a hospital mental health ward, for which Kesey’s research is legendary: a night shift worker at the Menlo Park Veterans’ Hospital, he volunteered for government-sponsored research (actually: CIA) into the effects of psychoactive drugs. His research bears strong fruit in the book in terms of the processes, the approaches to treatment and the effects of institutionalisation on the residents of the ward, and it makes some dramatic points about the brutalising impact of the remorseless, ratchet-like regime of ‘Big Nurse’, the female figure in charge of the ward. As the story cranks up towards its tragic, inescapable conclusion, the end does not leave the reader without hope and it is a continuing reminder of how thin the line is which divides clarity (and sanity) from confusion (and clinical madness); and not only when clinical madness may be being faked.

The allegorical aspects of the work, with the galvanising effects of McMurphy (the Jack Nicholson character in the film) on the atomised, isolated residents of the ward, speaks clearly of the importance of working together, as a collective, and of the vulnerability of people who only learn both that, and the power of the collective, unevenly and over time. At the same time, the costs of leadership, of bringing people together to challenge the authority to which they are subject, are made clear. The story is told through the eyes of ‘Chief’ Bromden, a man of native American descent, and whose previous encounters with authority give him insight into the powers of ‘the Combine’ which he understands as the power behind the organisation of wider society replicated within the power structures of the ward.

And yet some aspects of the book have survived very, very poorly. There are (very minor) references to under-age sex within McMurphy’s backstory. More overtly, there is an astonishing amount of casual racism in the novel: Bromden himself is the stereotypical dignified Indian, apparently a mute with a deeply-buried story to tell; the African-American aides in the novel – frequently un-named and in many ways Nurse Ratched’s dogsbodies – are lazy, speak in a stylised way, like basketball and are fond of a joint. And the language in which they are addressed is frequently that of Mark Twain, although my concern here is less the choice of language in a modern-day setting than the manner of their depiction and their witless insertion as black men into low-lying roles within the prevailing power structure as servants of it.

But my biggest criticism is of the levels of sexism within the novel in which the only female characters are, with just the one exception, either mothers or sex objects; while Nurse Ratched herself is frequently depicted either in an amorphous, asexual way or, alternatively, as the target for the most appalling fantasies, including in her humiliation at the novel’s conclusion. This is not to feel pity for Ratched, which would be difficult given the brutal nature of her role in charge of the ward and in the psychological aspects of the central part she plays in its tragic conclusion, but I am seeking to highlight the shockingly sexist manner of her portrayal, as well as of that of the other female characters, throughout the novel. It would be stretching the point beyond snapping to argue that Ratched is as much a victim of the Combine as the residents – there is absolutely no evidence for this – but we do need to be aware of the misogyny which underpins the ways she is depicted and the way she is viewed by the residents. Given the theme of male panic over emasculation which is also a feature of the novel – an odd theme even now in a society which remains patriarchal – Kesey was certainly aware of some aspects of how he approached his theme.

In both its racism and sexism, the book is thus of its time, although this by itself should not excuse it. We have, thankfully, come a long way in race and gender politics since the early 1960s (as well as having still a long way to go, as Andy Murray demonstrated only this week). However, in terms of criticism, this makes the novel less of a ‘roar of protest against middlebrow society’s Rules and the Rulers who enforce them’ (in Time‘s review quoted proudly on the back cover of my copy). The role that sexism and racism play within middlebrow society’s Rules (and power structures) means that no such roar can take place within the confines of a novel unless that novel consciously seeks to overthrow them – and so much less so when it incorporates them as an integral part of its telling, as this one does. (A telling which is, extremely disappointingly, echoed within the 2002 Introduction, by the way.)

To the modern reader, then, this is a novel with sizable structural weaknesses – which, incidentally, an aware editor could address, and reasonably simply. This is a great shame since, at its best, it has a powerful story to tell and does so, in other respects than these, with great skill and realism. But, these are weaknesses that are too great to overcome when they play such a central role in how that story is told. Whatever tripping that Kesey and his Merry Prankster mates were doing on the road, this might well have inhibited an awareness of the problems of patriarchalism which, thereafter, took at least another decade to emerge.

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