Book Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Posted on December 6, 2009

OneFlewOverTheCuckoosNestKen Kesey was an orderly at a mental institution in California, where, during the graveyard shift, he would drop acid and consume peyote. Through this haze he came to empathize with the patients, and eventually, during a particularly potent trip, penned the first 3 pages of the book that would become “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. He took the proceeds from the book, bought a van and a bunch of acid, then drove across the country handing out the drug, an act which is widely credited as the start of the hippy movement.

I suppose, then, that you won’t be surprised by the plot of the book. Set in a mental institution, the patients are subjected to the machinist rule of the “Big Nurse”, Nurse Ratched, who maintains total control over her domain. Everything goes fine until a new guy comes in, McMurphy. And then everything changes. McMurphy makes it a point to buck the system, and the novel concerns itself explicitly with the struggle for power between the McMurphy and the Big Nurse.

The story is told through the eyes of “Chief” Bromden, an Indian who has been pretending to be deaf and mute for as long as anyone can remember. Many have problems with it because they say it is misogynistic, but I feel that is just how Kesey chose to frame the struggle for power. By cutting to the core of each person’s personality, they weaken them. That’s how the Indians did it.

I had a number of problems with it. To start, this was not a page turner for me. I was very excited to start to read it, but it took me 2 weeks to finish it. I am by no means a lazy reader, but this story did not captivate my imagination. This is rough, considering one of my favorite movies (it used to be #1) is Cool Hand Luke, which is the exact same story at the core. At times it was very descriptive, but there was nothing that made me want to turn of “Jersey Shore” and flip the pages.

I hate to bring out my inner English major, but the thematic elements were not very well crafted. Kesey pointed out many times that he was giving us a power struggle, a struggle that I didn’t find entirely convincing. We knew that he was making statements about women and men, and that the final showdown would involve the nurse’s enormous breasts.

I am all for bucking the system, and I am a huge fan of Kesey personally. He lived what he preached. Eventually he retired with his wife, to his own self-sufficient farm where he wore tye-died shirts and didn’t change when he gave interviews. As a work of literature, I feel like it was overrated. As a player in this nations history, it cannot be ignored. It could be that you had to be in the ’60s to get a grip on me, but even I wasn’t hooked by its anti-establishment message.


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