A brilliantly funny and scathing critique of behaviorism, Cuckoo
is filled with memorable characters that remind me of the personalities I met in Catch 22
, which I also enjoyed wholeheartedly. Kesey and Heller are both able to turn nightmarish scenarios into palaces of absurdity that enable you to deal with painful and real topics at a distance. Both are definite precursors to the modern American brand of social commentary-comedy that has exploded in recent years. People like Stewart, Colbert and Black owe a great deal to both of these trailblazing authors.
Kesey's early experiences with both mental asylums and LSD are obvious influences throughout the work, which tells the tale of the battle between the insidiously sweet Nurse Ratched and her newest charge Randle Patrick McMurphy through the eyes of a mute half-Native American patient named Chief Bromden. The "Big Nurse" is an authoritarian figure who rules her ward through an ingenious and evil admixture of reward and shame that emasculates the men on the ward that are her charges - until, that is, she meets McMurphy, who is the lone blade of grass that refuses to bend. What develops is a contest of wills that empowers the patients to grab hold of their lives and buck a system that has labeled them "sick" for possessing rather innocuous human flaws that make them unsteady cogs in the machinery of post-war cookie-cutter orderly society. The novel is a scathing indictment against modern American psychology and the vapid go-along-to-get-along culture of a country that ironically counts individualism to be one of its highest values. In that America, a mental ward in Kesey's mind, the lone individual that most Americans would consider "heroic" is a brawling, card-dealing con man accused of statutory rape faking mental illness to escape the drudgery of a work farm for the remainder of his sentence. On the ward, McMurphy discovers true repression in the form of the Big Nurse and the precise and boring daily routines she inflicts upon her charges. I have to say, I loathed the Nurse almost as much as any fictional character I've yet encountered in my brief reading career. The primary method of control imposed upon the men of the ward is self-censorship. Each man is led by the nurse in group therapy sessions into expressions of self-loathing and are rewarded only by the redirection of attention to other patients by informing upon them. Each man is both his own worst enemy and the enemy of all others on the ward and each man fails to ever heal because in his own heart and mind he condemns himself to feel a sense of belonging, the only belonging left to him - to a group of people who are likewise "sick" and incurable.
The Nurse is the system in a very obvious sense. The Chief's waking hallucinations of robotism and conspiratorial musings about an all controlling Combine controlling people like puppets only serves to cement the image in the reader's mind. We experience McMurphy's transformative power as we listen and see the transformation of the Chief himself. As the novel progresses he transforms from timid fly-on-the-wall to active participant in the ward rebellion against the Nurse. It's a call to revolution that is still relevant 40 years after its initial publication.
This novel is seriously funny, heart-warming, thought-provoking and inspiring. It's hard to imagine so much life is packed into just a few narrative weeks and a little under 300 pages. It puts multi-part epics to shame an does so in a way that only half takes itself seriously. Cuckoo
should be mandatory reading to counteract the one-size-fits-all-mentality.
I realized I used an incredible number of hyphens in this review. Fail.