…people love this story or hate it.
My husband—a huge Kesey fan—has been shoving this book at me for years. We have three copies in our house. Yet, all I’ve managed to do over twenty-five years of marriage is move them from one bookshelf or end table to the next. My disinterest may have been the result of seeing the movie so many times, but I can no longer claim such a neutral stance. For I have become part of the group of people Chuck Palahniuk talks about in his Foreword to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I loved and hated it.
Let’s talk about hate. I struggled in the first half of the book, could only read in short spurts. Kesey’s debut is touted as one of the books that changed the shape and energy of the modern novel. The story smacks right into the reader’s face, so much to digest, to question, so much sadness around each sentence. I believed the novel was too intelligent for me to grasp. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get a handle on the fog? Does it really exist? Does Big Nurse have it pumped into the ward, or is it the result of the meds the patients are given?
The faces blow past in the fog like confetti.
I’m further off than I’ve ever been. This is what it’s like to be dead. I guess this is what it’s like to be a Vegetable; you lose yourself in the fog. You don’t move.
I was confused and frustrated, but the thread of tension throughout made me itch, like watching a master chess player setting up the board to kill the Queen and capture the King.
A lot can be learned about a character through dialogue. Elmore Leonard chose dialogue over description to express the essence of character. But Kesey’s descriptions of Big Nurse are so pin-point precise dialogue is unnecessary. In fact, Big Nurse says very little at all, yet her very presence petrifies us.
She can’t have them see her face like this, white and warped with fury. She uses all the power of control that’s in her. Gradually the lips gather together again under the little white nose, run together, like the red-hot wire had got hot enough to melt, shimmer a second, then click solid as the molten metal sets, growing cold and strangely dull.
I was awestruck by the writing. But once McMurphy realized Big Nurse could keep him longer than his initial sentence and a patient died, an overwhelming sense of hopelessness made me close the book.
Three weeks later I went back in, backtracked a bit and I woke up just like Chief.
I woke and the dorm was clean and silent; except for the soft breathing of the men and the stuff rattling around loose under the brittle ribs of the two old Vegetables, it was dead quiet. A window was up, and the air in the dorm was clear and had a taste to it made me feel kind of giddy and drunk, gave me a sudden yen to get up out of bed and do something.
The more Chief became an active participant the more engaged I was as a reader. This is when hate turned to love and I realized the magical power of Ken Kesey’s writing.
I’ve experienced twin-like empathy for many a character in literature. These are the books I’ve read over and over again. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest connected me with character in a different way. I became possessed. I was sucked into Chief’s fog, and became detached and uninterested, hoping to be left alone in my own misery. But McMurphy refuses to let the machine win. He prods and wedges open the bars of the hospital long enough for the all of the Acutes, including me, to be lured into believing we have a power of our own.
The wave of awakening was joyful and the book took off, an odd adventure with the strangest bedfellows. It’s a story of hope anchored in the cement of despair. It’s the kind of hope that can be won by those willing to become a witness long enough to chose the option never offered.
It’s easy to hate Kesey’s novel. Stories that force us to examine our lives and choices are hard to digest. Most often we reach for books to escape the grind of our daily existence. To meet our inadequacies head on is no picnic. But it’s the only way to unleash the confidence we need to ride through the life we were meant to live. A book everyone needs to read once.
Dip into One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.