Context: This was the first book I finished in our new home in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea.
Long ago, I saw the film of this book and was impressed by not only Jack Nicholson’s acting but by the presence of the character he played. McMurphy is a contemporary Hamlet no less. Just as with the Bard’s work, you watch the protagonist throughout wondering whether he is mad, or perhaps you are for doubting him. I’m not saying this is on a par with Hamlet, but what this does that the 500 year old play does not is question not just the sanity of the individual but the sanity of the institution.
In setting McMurphy against Nurse Ratched, Kesey has created one of fiction’s greatest pairings. You never know why McMurphy has been committed into her ‘care’ and yet somehow you feel an injustice has been done. Still, he’s not a nice character. In other words, he’s as flawed as the rest of us. And in Ratched, you have everything that is evil about institutionalism: there’s the lofty indifference, the patronism, the heartless brutality masquerading as tough love and, over it all, the sanitised primness which suffocates not just bacteria, but all forms of life.
And the medium for the story is the eyes and mind of another lunatic: Chief Bromden, the dumb, floor-sweeping Indian who perceives more than anyone gives him credit for. It’s a perfect vantage point for the clash that ensues between McMurphy and Ratched for many reasons, most of all because it illustrates the torment of loyalty that rages in whatever is left of the minds of those on the ward.
The prose is mad at times too. There’s a sequence where Bromden is sedated which is well-crafted and for the most part, Kesey does a good job of rendering each character’s dialogue. But for me one of the weaknesses of the novel was that it was hard to read. The prose doesn’t grip you, I found some of it obscure and often I felt like it got in the way of what was a classic story setup.
I think, on balance, that the film is actually a better rendition of the story, perhaps even of Kesey’s idea, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen it. Having said that, I remember it vividly. I don’t think somehow that I will remember the book as well.