Book Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Kesey)

February 2, 2011

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest doesn’t exactly suit my habit of reviewing books right around their publication dates–it was first released in 1962 and has since become a major classic.  But I somehow avoided it up until now, and having come to it at last, I feel compelled to urge anyone else who has yet to read it to do so.

In some ways, Kesey’s classic takes on the same issues that I mentioned in my review of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna; that is, America’s history of conformist culture and its sometimes surreal habit of crucifying those who stand left of center.  Its characters are the American asylumnites of the 50s and 60s and their keepers, but even considering their strange behaviors and the schizophrenic language of the narrator, Chief Bromden, it doesn’t take the reader long to begin wondering if any of them are crazy after all–or at the least, if they were when they arrived or if it’s been done to them by the hospital and the zeitgeist–what Bromden calls the Combine.  His crazy-talk about vast machines and mechanical puppetry is, among other things, a fitting metaphor for a culture consumed by its own mass-produced suburbs, mass-produced jobs, and mass-produced pills for sanitariums.

In this way, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is not merely a tale of a man named McMurphy raising hell in a crazy ward run by the authoritarian Big Nurse Ratched.  It is not even entirely a novel about American mental institutions; Kesey thought bigger than that.  Like his Chief Bromden, he saw the wires running between nurses and suburbs and every man to wear a business suit; though his characters are locked away behind solid walls, their sight reaches far beyond.  And ultimately, it is a story of how people can come together to subvert the Combine, and can win, even if only at a cost.  To quote Kesey in the book’s introduction, “This was, after all, the sixties.”