One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
What is freedom, and who controls it? What are rules? What is authority? What is crazy? And how can authority exist if everyone is crazy? Isn’t insanity, on some level, a refusal to play by the established rules of society? And by that logic, is insanity not the ultimate freedom?
Ken Kesey’s classic anti-authoritarian novel nests these questions in a struggle between two iconic characters: one Randle Patrick McMurphy (famously played by Jack Nicholson in the film version) and Nurse Ratched (whose on-screen character ranks #5 on the American Film Institute’s top movie villains, behind the likes of Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter and the Wicked Witch of the West).
The story takes place in a mental institution in Oregon in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. RP McMurphy, after a run-in with the law, has opted to have himself committed in lieu of jail time. He’s a rambunctious rabble-rouser, a drinker, con man and card shark, but definitely not crazy. He is used to making his own rules, breaking those he finds disagreeable. Once in the institution, he meets his nemesis, the authoritarian to his rebellion, the order to his entropy, the buzzkill to his party.
Additionally, a host of other colorful characters populate the novel, often used as pawns in the power struggle between McMurphy and Ratched. As McMurphy tries to instill confidence and self-belief in his fellow inmates, he comes to the uncomfortable realization that many of them are in the institution voluntarily, specifically because of the structure it offers, precisely because of the comfort the rules provide. They sacrifice their individuality because they are afraid of the uncertainty that comes with living life with gusto and panache. And so, their belief in themselves becomes a proxy war for McMurphy and Ratched, he pumping them full of courage and confidence and she knocking them back down again.
What is remarkable is the amount of fight that happens inside such a confined space. It feels at times that Kesey is telling the story of revolution, of nations at war, not simply a handful of crazy people locked away in a loony bin. And as he explores the nature of rules and of sanity, he also causes us to question reality, how much of it is neatly defined by our rules and guidelines in order to keep us calm, safe, and in line. But Kesey’s ace in the hole is his narrator, the gentle giant, Chief Bromden, a Native American who pretends to be deaf and dumb and thus becomes the ultimate fly on the wall, despite his size. Yet, at the same time, he displays symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia, seeing an underlying circuitry, wiring, as if the whole world is bugged and monitored by an un-named “them.” In Kesey’s unreliable narrator, inside the Chief’s paranoia, the authoritarian/anti-authoritarian battle also rages.
I had forgotten many of the plot points since last time I’d read this book. Many of the jokes were fresh. It is boisterously fun at times. And even though I knew the ultimate ending, the buildup is masterful. There is not a misplaced step in the way Kesey cranks up the tension between McMurphy and Ratched. The pendulum is set in motion early on, and each time one of them gets the better of the other, it swings back the other way with more momentum and more anger, until the final, gut-punching conclusion.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of my favorite books. Maybe my #1. This time I gave a listen to the new audiobook version with John C. Reilly narrating. His reading of it is excellent, and he breathes distinct life into each of the characters. It was a real treat to experience it again.