This is one of those books that I’ve “always been meaning to read”. When a chap from choir thrust it into my hands, I finally thought, “well, why not? No time like the present”. I read it in no time: once you get into the rhythm of the narrative, it is very hard to put down.
The story set in the 1950’s and is narrated by Chief “Broom” Bromden, a Chronic patient at the Oregon State mental asylum. As Chief never talks and chooses not to acknowledge when anyone speaks to him, everyone assumes that he is deaf and dumb. For this reason, no one sees the harm in talking freely when he is around: he is privy to many private conversations. Despite being 6’7”, he goes mostly unnoticed. Chief’s mental illness is obvious from the first few pages: he suffers from paranoia, as well as delusions and hallucinations: his main concern is something he refers to as the Combine, a faceless organisation that controls society and forces people into conformity. This world view is obviously exacerbated by the rules, regimes and regimens in place at the asylum.
The story begins in a dreary, lifeless ward at the asylum, and the Chief describes the authoritarian rule of Nurse Ratched, a former army nurse who rules with an iron fist and takes no prisoners. She oversees a daily group therapy session, in which she actively encourages the patients to psychologically attack each other, and should patients rebel or argue back, she sends them for ECT or even a lobotomy. Ratched’s power seems absolute, until one day, a new patient is admitted: Randle P. McMurphy. Chief can tell straight away that McMurphy is not like any other patient, with his laid back attitude, outspoken manner and heaps of character. McMurphy sets in motion events which cannot be undone, but to help the other patients regain their freedom, he must make the ultimate sacrifice.
I adore this book. Once you get used to the dialect (and of course discerning between real events and the hallucinations that creep into Chief’s narrative), the story rolls along with alarming pace. Most striking to me was how Kesey deals with death – that is, in a very abrupt manner. There is no ceremony. Death is sudden, and that is it. But then, that IS death. There is no coming back. What’s done is done. It’s frightening, but it’s real. Even Chief’s paranoid delusions have a lot of truth in them: when he first talks to McMurphy, and explains how he feels about the world, there is a little part of you that understands what he means, through and through.
All of the main characters are wonderful and fully developed. My personal favourite is Harding: whilst he has very little self-esteem, he is very witty and well-spoken. He’s canny and world-wise, but maybe that’s what made him hide away from the world in the first place.
At times hilarious, at times frightening, more than a little bit tragic, in my eyes this book is overall completely liberating. It celebrates the brotherhood of man even in such an oppressive environment. It condemns forced conformity. It highlights the importance of laughter.
Until now, I didn’t realise it had been made into a film, but I will be hunting that down too, to see how Kesey’s world looks through someone else’s eyes.