In 2014, one of the biggest changes I wanted to make was to read, watch, review, and do more. With this in mind, the first of my Christmas books up for review on my brand spanking new blog, is a 1962 novel by Ken Kesey.
Star Rating: 4/5
There are gaps in everyone’s reading list, but I’m ashamed to say this is the first time I’ve got round to reading this American classic, despite being an English Language & Literature graduate. Now that I have, though, I can wholeheartedly say that I’ve been missing out.
To recent generations, a mental health problem increasingly seems like a 21st century illness. We can’t click a mouse or turn on the TV without reminders that various celebrities suffer from depression; that anxiety is something as common as a 99p McDonalds burger; that social pressures and 24-hour access to information are crippling our brains; and that women and men alike are falling prey to unrealistic body images perpetuated by the evil mass-media. Well, all of this may be true to greater and lesser extents, but mental health problems are certainly not a new phenomenon. As this novel reveals, though, improvements in their treatment certainly are.
The brilliance of this novel, for me, lies in its author’s first-hand experience of 1950s/60s mental asylums, and in the creation of his protagonist. ‘Chief’ Bromden is a half-Indian half-white American who’s been committed to an asylum following service in World War I. The ward is run with an inhuman adherence to guidelines by the machine-like Nurse Ratched, but Bromden has survived her worst travesties by pretending to be both deaf and dumb. Believing him to be unable to understand or communicate, doctors and patients alike speak freely in front of him, giving him unprecedented access to the inner-workings of the institution.
A contemporary of Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs, Kesey’s own experiences inform the people and practices on the ward. In the preface he describes taking part in drug trials for psychedelics, and seeing mental health patients, ‘their faces all ghastly confessions,’ pass by the window of his room. Years later, everyone in this novel has a confession to make; whether it’s Nurse Ratched with her reliance on all things mechanical; Bromden with his secret spying; Cheswick with his tendency to suicide; or McMurphy, the final ‘inmate’ inducted onto Nurse Ratched’s ward, and the catalyst for the revolution that occurs from within.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of those rare novels that manages to be both a product of its time, and endlessly relevant in the modern age. The patients’ neuroses are familiar to everyone, the ‘machinery of the Combine’ is easily recognisable as society’s stranglehold on individuality of any kind, and the refusal to conform to ill-deserved power remains a continuous theme from beginning to end.
Despite all of its familiar qualities, though, the treatment of mental health patients is shocking. The staff’s treatment of the patients released into their care is unnerving. And the ending will leave even the most hardened of cynics shaken; I guarantee it.