We’ve all, at some stage, questioned the sanity of the modern world. Every age believes its own to be the most chaotic and volatile, manipulated by the unseen and incomprehensible mechanisms of society. And yet we are part of such society, part of this ‘machine’. If society is indeed mad, are we not mad along with it? And if so, are we able to step out of this madness and regain some clarity?
‘It wasn’t me that started acting deaf; it was people that first started acting too dumb to hear or see or say anything at all.’
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is told through the eyes of ‘Chief’ Bromden, a hulking half-Native American who’s been locked up in a psychiatric hospital for twenty years. He’s convinced everyone there that he’s deaf and mute. ‘I had to keep acting deaf if I wanted to hear at all’ - people spoke their true minds when around him, thinking he couldn’t hear them.
It’s a clever trick, the survival mechanism of a young Native American in a rapidly encroaching white man’s world. But it sets the Chief up as an unreliable narrator. ‘I remember all this part real clear.’ Does he? And is therefore everything else he says not entirely true? Quite possibly.
About to stir up trouble in Chief’s tranquilised world is the arrival of a new patient, the charismatic and combative McMurphy, ‘…all two hundred and ten red-headed psychopathic Irishman pounds of him…’. We all know a McMurphy, and hopefully most of us have figured out the motives and psychology which drives a person like him: sometimes good, sometimes not so good. McMurphy typically embodies both. Only the Chief sees through it.
The description of the various inmates of the asylum, classified as either ‘Acutes’ or ‘Chronics’ – essentially, curable or uncurable – offers the opportunity for some wonderful characterisations:
‘Harding is a flat, nervous man…he’s got wide, thin shoulders and he curves them in around his chest when he’s trying to hide inside himself. He’s got hands so long and white and dainty I think they carved each other out of soap and sometimes they get loose and glide around in front of him free as two white birds until he notices them and traps them between his knees; it bothers him that he has pretty hands.’
Subsequent mentions of Harding further allude to his restless hands using various metaphors. It’s a neat literary device.
There’s also something of the prose style of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (see review, this blog); it’s not surprising to discover that Neal Cassady – the inspiration for Kerouac’s travelling buddy, Dean Moriarty – was a close friend of Kesey. Which is not to imply that Kesey is derivative; Kesey wrote from personal experience, having participated in government-sponsored LSD experiments, and worked in a psychiatric hospital (where apparently, hallucinating on peyote, he envisaged the character of Chief). So, as per the first law of creative writing, he ‘writes what he knows’.
Much has been made of the character of Big Nurse Ratched (‘as in ‘ratchet’, machine-like), an ex-army nurse who runs the ward with iron discipline. She is an obvious foil for McMurphy, and their battle of wills is a constant theme throughout the book. Towards the book’s climax, Nurse Ratched finally figures out why McMurphy is really there, inciting a final confrontation which will decide the fate of all of them.
Only one of them will ‘win’.
But essentially, it’s the Chief’s story. This is somewhat of a problem, as I’ve already alluded to the Chief’s unreliability as a narrator. In one dream-like scene, the Chief ‘walks’ into a painting:
‘I push my broom up face to face with a great big picture…The picture is a guy fly-fishing somewhere in the mountains…There’s a path running down through the aspen and I push my broom down the path a ways and sit down on a rock and look back out through the frame.’
Though there’s a wonderful cinematic quality to that, it obviously undermines the Chief’s concept of reality. In other scenes – equally cinematic (I was reminded of the 1998 Kiefer Sutherland movie Dark City) – the Chief lies awake at night thinking he can hear, and sometimes see, a giant machine which operates in the bowels of the asylum, staffed by robot workers. It’s all part of ‘the Combine’, which runs the hospital and the outside world. The analogy to modern society is obvious. There is perhaps some prescience in Kesey’s concerns, with the ‘Combine’ about to kick into next gear with the looming war in Vietnam.
As part of this controlling apparatus, Chief also believes that the hospital is pumping fog into the wards using machines, which Chief has experience of from his war service: ‘You had a choice: you could either strain and look at things as they appear in front of you in the fog, painful as it might be, or you could relax and lose yourself.’ I take it that this is Chief’s way of rationalising (if he’s capable of that) his mental state within the hospital. But it could also be Kesey’s metaphor for society at large, a questioning of the foggy comfort of the consumerist culture of the times.
Elsewhere through the book there a conversations and interactions between characters where the Chief can’t possibly have been present, and you realise that in essence we have been gradually and unknowingly subsumed into the Chief’s role of silent, omnipresent observer. It’s very subtle, and very clever; perhaps we go mad only slowly, not realising until it’s too late.
In contrast to his paranoia and schizophrenia in the asylum, and perhaps as a commentary on his Native American heritage, the Chief is calm and lucid whenever he is observing nature. It also showcases Kesey’s writing at its best:
‘There was a cold moon in the window pouring light into the room like skim milk.’ (note the pairing of pouring and milk).
‘The sun wedges apart the clouds and lights up the frost till the grounds are covered in sparks.’
‘A thin breeze worked at sawing what leaves were left from the oak trees, stacking them neatly against the wire cyclone fence. There were little brown birds occasionally on the fence; when a puff of wind would hit the fence the birds would fly off with the wind. It looked at first like the leaves were hitting the fence and turning into birds and flying away.’
Kesey’s writing reaches it’s most sublime in the episode of an unlikely offshore fishing trip taken by McMurphy and a few of the patients, accompanied by one of the asylum’s doctors. The open spaces and the action of the trip are a relief for the reader from the claustrophobia of the asylum. Kesey also uses this to comment on the banality of suburban sprawl, as seen through the Chief’s eyes after twenty years in the asylum.
But there is also humour, such as when McMurphy sneaks a whore onto the ward:
‘She stopped when she got to the middle of the day-room floor and saw she was circled by forty staring men in green, and it was so quiet you could here bellies growling, and all along the Chronic row hear catheters popping off.’
‘…you could read the dates of the coins in her Levi pockets, they were so tight…’
Ultimately, the novel is Kesey’s commentary on the ‘madness’ of society: are the ‘lunatics’ of the asylum actually the sane ones for choosing to opt out of society? It’s a question which we must ask of our own modern world. We have a choice.
Obviously, there is the movie version, starring a young Jack Nicholson as McMurphy (Kesey did not approve of his casting, and apparently never saw the film either). I haven’t seen the movie, and I thought that having Nicholson in my head might spoil the book, but it doesn’t; though the McMurphy of the book is more physically imposing, Nicholson is a perfect choice for McMurphy, who is equally boorish and gregarious. The Academy of Motion Pictures obviously agreed, as Nicholson won the Oscar for Best Actor. There’s also the infamous The Simpson’s episode featuring ‘Michael Jackson’ trapped in the body of a hulking white man in a psychiatric hospital.