Sunday, 30 June 2013

BOOK REVIEW: "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" by Ken Kesey

In recent months, my reading pace has slowed considerably.  There were a few reasons for it that I can identify, namely my time was being stretched in more directions than it had been during the winter.  When spring arrived, I ramped up the intensity of my exercise regimen.  Plenty of my free time was spent running or riding my bike or lifting weights.  All things that can't be done while reading.  Most of my reading is done at work inbetween tasks.  That time was still there, but once the calendar turned over to April, something drastically changed. 

For the past two years I have co-owned a fantasy baseball team with one of my friends.  I enjoy it, baseball is the best fantasy sport there is.  So many numbers.  Trends, situational stats, injury impacts, it is a blast trying to figure out what all the different factors mean.  Our team is in year 3 now, and the league is scheduled to run perpetually.  This year another buddy offered a chance to join a second league.  Also a keeper league, meaning I am committed for the next handful of years, the new league might be even more competitive than the other league.  It is definitely more time consuming for a number of reasons.  With endless roster moves allowed, you can spend as much or as little time on your team as you want.  The rosters are set on a weekly basis, so you can just log on Sunday night, make a couple moves and be done with it.  Those owners doing that find themselves at the bottom of the 13 team league.  Right now, I am on the edge of contention, in 5th place.  I also joined a 1 year league with some other buddies, smaller entry fee, but with 12 teams involved, still worth a decent bit of money if I win.  I didn't intend this to be a detailed update on my fantasy baseball teams, as I have plans to make a post on the topic in the near future.  This is a book review, so let's get back to it.

For me to get into a book, and read it with a decent pace, there needs to be a flow to the story.  A reason for me to keep with it, to see what happens next.  If I pick the book up and read an uneventful few pages, my mind will begin to search for something else I could be doing.  Often, these books are still good reads, they just take forever to get through because I am reading them 2 or 3 pages at a time.  I read "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" over the course of about 2 months because it had this problem.  The story did centre around an interesting character, but it too often went off on tangents with other characters that didn't capture me.  The novel was drawn out over 350 pages, with a short climatic ending.  Too much time spent preparing for the end, too little time spent on the end itself.  I was beginning to wonder if my interest in reading was fading.  Fear not.  Enter Randle McMurphy.

The main character of the novel "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" is different.  He might the most unique character in any book I have ever read.  If you took the character traits of Randle McMurphy and put them in a vaccuum, you would think villian, antagonist, bad guy through and through.  But, when he is juxtaposed against Nurse Ratched, the boss of the Psych ward that McMurphy gets sent to he becomes a martyr of sorts.  His frequently used and quite loud voice becomes a collective one, speaking for the patients on the ward who either don't speak themselves or didn't have the guts to do so.  Nurse Ratched, called "Big Nurse" by Chief Bromden and the other patients, seemed invincible.  Her cracks, so well concealed previously, are exposed with expert precision by McMurphy.  The arrival of the protagonist on the ward adds life to the other patients, but as the story reaches its conclusion, it's not clear whether or not the excitement that McMurphy has brought was for the best. 

Chief Bromden is the narrator of the story.  His situation is unique.  After experiencing considerable trauma in his younger days, much of which is chronicled in the novel through flashbacks, he is diagnosed with a handful of mental illnessess and sent to the psych ward indefinitely.  He pretends that he is deaf and mute, maintaining the charade for more than 10 years by the time McMurphy arrives.  After McMurphy's arrival, Bromden struggles with maintaining the ruse because he often hears shocking things coming from his mouth.  Bromden has to shape his behaviours based on things he can see, and try to sort out those things that he heard.  Eventually, he can stay quiet no longer, opening up to McMurphy and becoming his right hand man of sorts. 

The novel is paced by McMurphy's antics, and Nurse Ratched's reaction to said antics.  As far as I can gather, the theme of the novel is that while McMurphy is seemingly successful in breaking the head nurse down, he leaves a lot of collateral damage in his wake.  Even McMurphy begins to unravel, but Bromden seems to be the only other patient that notices.  He manages to convince the night watchman to allow a couple of women onto the ward, procuring alcohol as well.  Many of the men join in on the fun, having a blast with plans to clean up before the morning staff arrives.  The other men convince McMurphy that this is his best chances to escape the increasing harsh punishments that he has faced.  He doesn't get away, and the men all pass out without cleaning up.  When Nurse Ratched finds them all in the morning, one patient, Billy Bibbitt is still missing.  He is eventually found in the spare room on a mattress with the second woman.  His ever present stutter disappears as he stands up to the nurse for the first time.  She sends him into her office after telling him she would call his mother.  A few minutes later, they hear a horrifying scream from another nurse after she discovered Billy's body.  He had slit his own throat.  This leads McMurphy to attack Big Nurse in the climax to the novel.  She is off work for a week because of the injuries she incurs.  The ward crumbles.  Many of the guys get out, signing themselves out, getting themselves transfered, etc.  When Big Nurse returns, only 3 of the guys remain.  She is powerless as her voice doesn't work.  McMurphy is returned from the disturbed ward.  He has had a lobotomy and is now in a vegetative state.  The story concludes with Chief Bromden suffocating McMurphy mercifully, then escaping by using his super human strength that McMurphy helped him build up.

While I read, I knew that the end of the novel would be eventful.  I wasn't sure exactly which direction it would go in.  The writing of Ken Kesey is impactful and is quite a different take on the study of humanity.  The Big Nurse attempted to dehumanize the men under her care.  She tried to create a very mechanical atmosphere, and she seemed to have done it.  Once McMurphy arrived, she began to doubt herself.  The men gained confidence through McMurphy, and it turned out that you can't control people, even if they are sick and or mentally unstable.  I loved the wild ride that this book took me on.  It's status as a classic is widely debated, but critics be damned.  I know what I like, and this, I like.  Thanks Ken Kesey (R.I.P.) for bringing some excitement back to my reading

No comments:

Post a comment