Sunday, January 23, 2011

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962)

Ken Kesey's first published novel is as meticulously wrought as it is poorly represented by the film version that followed it 13 years later. By its very medium that movie was foredoomed from the start to play too easily to the broadest elements of a story already perilously close to hackneyed interpretation. It's a story about the wisdom of the mad and the sanity of the insane, and that's just too easy. It needs Kesey's allusive language to soften and blunt the cliché, and it needs the novelistic device and the nuance afforded by it of the unreliable narrator strategy, which screws this tale right into the ground. The real central character of the thing is Chief Bromden, the passive and set-upon long-time inmate of the institution who tells Randle McMurphy's story, which is actually just one externalization of his own. McMurphy's story is easy enough to confuse for the main show—a kind of tragedy, as he arrives on the scene, introduces his fellow inmates to life and pleasure and joy, fills them to the brim with it, before bringing himself down by the character flaw of a resolute defiance of all authority. But think about it. Is that really such a character flaw, particularly within the four corners of this novel? No, the real story here is the epiphany and awakening and exhilarating liberation of Chief Bromden, and the only way into that is by letting him tell his own story in his own idiosyncratic way, a story whose action is almost entirely internal. Kesey worked as an orderly in an institution for the mentally ill and obviously observed it closely, the suffocating, claustrophobic routines of the place, with everything revolving around meals and smokes and baths and the authority wielded ruthlessly by the medical staff at every level. More importantly, he also gained some ineffable grokking sense, likely from his participation at the same time in formal studies of hallucinogenic drugs in that institution, of the interiority of those living there in the conditions, the paranoia and fear and delusions, the hazes of drugs and electroshock therapy and mental unbalance, and the capitulation that overwhelms and swallows entire lives, lives already debilitated. In effect Kesey occupied the gray areas occupied by gray men and women between madness and vitality and death and torpor and came back to tell about it. I can understand why a Hollywood studio would want to jump all over what turned out to be a hot property (my paperback from 1967 is already labeled as a fifth printing), and even why a citizen of a repressive Eastern Europe Soviet regime, Milos Forman, would be drawn to it. But they couldn't even touch the raw power of this novel, much less do it justice.

In case it's not at the library.

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