As previously mentioned, I struggled through this book.
Not because it wasn’t well written—in fact, I loved the narration of protagonist Chief Bromden and the way author Ken Kesey continually used misspelling to take the reader into Bromden’s mind—but because I was so preoccupied with other things, that I didn’t really take notice of what was occurring.
But in a nutshell, the novel deals with patients in a mental hospital, and centres around Bromden, a half-Native American who has been pretending to be deaf and dumb, and fellow resident of the ward Randle McMurphy, the fiery redhead who shakes things up when he is transferred from a prison work farm. Questions arise, specifically from antagonist Nurse Ratched and the doctors, as to whether McMurphy is actually mentally ill, or just uses his pasts crimes to live out the rest of his life in, what he believes is, the cushy Pendleton asylum.
The hospital is anything but, and the antics of its patients conjure up memories of Shawshank Redemption, Prison Break, The Longest Yard and even Toy Story 3! And while none of these films are set in a mental institution per se, they just might have borrowed some inspiration from Cuckoo’s Nest.
McMurphy acts as a sort of vicarious thrill-seeker, and the other patients live their lives through his rebellion. He is also the catalyst for Bromden to reveal he can actually speak and hear, and his fellow patients to stand up for themselves and buck the system.
McMurphy and Nurse Ratched become involved in a power struggle, with McMurphy taking on the role of leader to the patients, and ultimately, he attacks Ratched, strangling her and taking away her most powerful tool—her voice—and McMurphy is given a lobotomy.
During the absence of both the nurse and their leader, most of Pendleton’s residents check out, and those who do stay to witness their return—the nurse unable to speak, and thus control her patients, and McMurphy in a “chronic” vegetative state—soon leave. But not before Bromden suffocates McMurphy in his sleep, so that he can die with some dignity. Bromden then leaves to rejoin his tribe.
Kesey uses the residents to illustrate the injustices of mental patients, having spent time working as an orderly in one, where he took LSD and Peyote as part of Project MKULTRA, an illegal CIA human research program to “manipulate individual mental states”.
Nurse Ratched, in particular, is so craftily subtle in how she goes about controlling the men, that most of them aren’t even aware she is doing so. In Foucaultian terms, this type of manipulation can be damaging on a “broad social scale”, as it encourages censorship of one’s actions.
All in all, I quite liked (what bits I did pick up through a distracted reading of) the book, and I’m a bit of a sucker for a story with a message. Unlike A Clockwork Orange or something along those obscure lines, the story was written in a straightforward manner and was (mostly) a pleasure to read.