Saturday, 10 October 2009

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (Ken Kesey)

--The blurb--
"Boisterous, ribald, and ultimately shattering, Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is the seminal novel of the 1960s that has left an indelible mark on the literature of our time. Here is the unforgettable story of a mental ward and its inhabitants, especially the tyrannical Big Nurse Ratched and Randle Patrick McMurphy, the brawling, fun-loving new inmate who resolves to oppose her. We see the struggle through the eyes of Chief Bromden, the seemingly mute half-Indian patient who witnesses and understands McMurphy's heroic attempt to do battle with the awesome powers that keep them all imprisoned."
Blurb from

--The review--
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is a novel that consistently appears not only in lists of the best novels ever written but also in lists of books that have attracted controversy. This combination of popularity and provocation makes me wonder why I didn't read it before, and it did not disappoint.

That's not to say this is an easy novel: with complex sentences, dense fields of text, and many an abstract idea to absorb, this poses an intellectual challenge as well as confronting us emotionally with horrific scenes of the treatments used in mental hospitals at this time. It's also difficult to realise what exactly is wrong with the Chief mentally, if indeed anything; Kesey approaches the Chief's thoughts with such sensitivity and realism that they can seem almost normal to us.

However, there's plenty to make this approachable, too, despite the novel's combination of intellect and gruesomeness: the diversity of the characters in the novel is to be commended, as is the ease with which readers can visualise them. Kesey keeps the pace, matching the Chief's languorous thoughts and visions with events that are hilarious and intimidating in equal measure. Kesey also grounds himself as a key influence in literature that is to come on the subject of mental illness: echoes of his work can be seen in Clare Allan's Poppy Shakespeare, to give just one example.

Equilibrium is continuously disrupted in the novel, with Kesey leaving us quite often not knowing what to expect next, although perhaps not with the same intensity of twists and turns as in Roald Dahl's short stories for adults. The ending, though, is fitting, balancing out the arguable injustice of McMurphy's fate with the eerie calm of Chief Bromden's.

Other works by Ken Kesey
Sometimes A Great Notion (1964)
Caverns (1989)
Sailor Song (1992)
Last Go Round (1994; with Ken Babbs)

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