The Reading Life: ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ turns 50
Sure, everyone’s heard of it. But is it worth reading?
Before Jack Nicholson won his first Oscar, before there was a bus full of merry pranksters, there was a writing student with a swing-shift job in a mental ward.
It’s the Ken Kesey of that era who stares from the jacket flap of the 50th anniversary edition of his debut novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”: His curly hair is cropped short, he wears a cotton work shirt and his gaze is steady.
To someone of my generation — X-ish — he’s almost unrecognizable. The Kesey I knew, peripherally, was a spaced-out hippie spouting psychedelic lingo long past its expiration date. He was a former ‘60s icon hauled into mainstream culture from time to time, more often than not playing the buffoon.
Kesey’s novel was a rapid bestseller, but his fame came from what he did after: name a bus Further, paint it outrageous colors, fill it with counterculture friends he called the Merry Pranksters and take it on the road. It was part Beat — Neal Cassady was its driver — and part antecedent to the tune-in, drop-out psychedelic ‘60s. Kesey was one of the first proponents of mind-altering drugs: He’d been a Stanford test subject for mescaline and lysergic acid diethylamide before LSD was banned. The mad bus trip was documented by Tom Wolfe in his 1968 book “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” another bestseller, making Kesey a highly prominent hippie.
Then, pushing his novel further into the background, came the 1975 film — more than a film, a juggernaut. Despite its anti-establishment themes, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was the first film in 40 years to sweep five major Oscars: adapted screenplay, director for Milos Forman, lead actress for Louise Fletcher, lead actor for Jack Nicholson and best picture. It was Nicholson’s first Academy Award, and something in the character McMurphy, a petty con with wickedly charming rebelliousness, seemed to catapult him to an indelible level of stardom.
All that momentum lodged Kesey’s novel firmly on the shelf of long-standing American classics. It’s been assigned in classrooms for decades — a colleague’s son just finished reading it — and that’s helped it stay in print. One version includes an introduction by scholar Robert Faggen; another has a pop culture appeal, with illustrations by Joe Sacco and an introduction by Chuck Palahniuk.
The 50th edition skips all that. It’s back to basics, a hardcover with the original marvelous midcentury jacket design. There is no introduction and no contextualization. It has none of the counterculture baggage, doesn’t come with a photograph of Nicholson as McMurphy on the cover (many editions do). Save for the 50th anniversary medallion on the front and the note in Kesey’s brief bio that he died in 2001, it is just like the book that first hit shelves in 1962.
So with the new edition making it easy, I wondered if I could read “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” as one might have 50 years ago. I would try to set aside five decades of history and massive cultural shifts, set aside all I casually knew about Kesey and his failure of promise. Since I’d missed it in the curves of my education and never gotten around to reading it as an adult, I might evaluate it on its merits, nothing more. Could it hold up?
Indeed it did.
Kesey uses a risky narrative device. The story’s told by Chief Bromden, a longtime mental patient who has been electroshocked and overmedicated, leaving his perception wavery and confused. At times lost between a dream state and reality, Chief is hampered by fear and his vision that the real world is controlled by a massive, metallic superstructure he calls the Combine. Everyone believes, incorrectly, that Chief is deaf and dumb; his perceived disability allows him to move essentially unseen throughout the ward, witnessing private conversations. This means he can tell us everything that’s happening, although sometimes he tells it slant.
This kind of hampered, subjective narrator is hard to do well: William Faulkner and Mark Haddon are two who managed to pull it off, and Kesey is their equal. His writing is nuanced; the prose becomes more straightforward toward the end of the book, as Chief becomes clearer-headed.
And the prose is delightful, idiosyncratic while full of warmth. In the early pages, he describes a nurse as “a girl with one wandering eye that always keeps looking worried over her shoulder while the other one goes about its usual business.”
Into the mental ward comes McMurphy, who’s gotten himself there for what he thinks will be a cushy alternative to the rest of his prison sentence. McMurphy is described as strong, stocky and redheaded, and I did my best to conjure him that way. But Nicholson kept intruding. His performance of McMurphy is so indelible that it was him I pictured, rather than the McMurphy of Kesey’s novel. I doubt, after seeing the movie, anyone could shake it.
Something I wasn’t expecting: As significant and excellent as the film was, there is much of the book it didn’t capture. Chief’s subjective point of view is sometimes weird and disturbed — some critics call his character schizophrenic — yet it more persuasively represents the experience of the mental patients than it does an objective movie camera. The interplay among the patients gets more attention in the novel, while the film translates generally as antic chaos. And in the book, the arc is not just of McMurphy’s extreme actions, but how all the patients — not just Chief — learn from his example how to be men again.
In Kesey’s book, McMurphy is a pigheaded hero, someone who isn’t trying to do right but can’t help himself. Chief comes to see McMurphy’s resistance to the status quo as a burden put on him by the passive residents of the ward. The most terrifying moment of the book for me was not (spoiler alert) Billy’s death, but when McMurphy learned that the other patients could check themselves out at any time, yet chose to stay, obeying the imperious rule of Nurse Ratched. “I don’t seem to be able to get it straight in my mind,” he says.
Although the formula that makes a book popular remains impossibly mysterious, one factor is the cultural environment in which it lands. As the culture changes, some books that appear significant for a time may fail to endure. I had feared “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” would be one of those books. But it isn’t. In it, a stranger walks into a closed environment and subverts the rules, asking all along why anyone would passively live that way. This was a message embraced by the hippies of the ‘60s, but it resonates just as strongly with those who occupied Wall Street; two copies of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” are in the Occupy Wall Street library. Fifty years later, Kesey’s work is still great.
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