I haven’t seen the film adaptation of this, but I came across the 50th anniversary edition of the book on Audible and decided to give it a try. My knowledge going in: mental ward and Jack Nicholson. Turns out, that is pretty much the gist of it. Loudmouthed Randle McMurphy is brought into the ward and shakes things up for patients and staff alike.
Through the eyes of a half Native American psychiatric patient called ‘Chief’ Bromden, we watch as someone new is brought onto the ward – Randle McMurphy. He’s a rebellious gambler who was sentenced to jail after a battery charge, to which he pleaded insanity, and was allowed to spend his term under psychiatric care. He immediately takes dominance over the group, and even though he’s loud and opinionated and a con man, his sincerity and humour win the group over. He’s something very different than they’re used to, and he gradually influences change in everyone around him.
Right from the first day he’s admitted, McMurphy has problems with the boss of the floor – Nurse Ratched, a terrifying bully of a woman who feels if she gives one inch she’ll lose any control she has, and in a way at first you can’t blame her. McMurphy is clearly after control of the ward. His views on authority remind me a lot of my teenaged years when every teacher was the enemy. While I still think many of them were idiots (whether that’s actually true or not), after graduation I was able to look back and see how I essentially forced a few of them to act the way they did towards me. For a good portion of the book, that’s how I viewed Nurse Ratched. I hated her with the passion of a teenager, but I could also see her with the reasoning of an adult. Although, it slowly became obvious that her tyranical rule wasn’t strictly for the interest of the patients.
[…] she’s so furious. She’s swelling up, swells till her back’s splitting out the white uniform and she’s let her arms section out long enough to wrap around the three of them five, six times. She looks around her with a swivel of her huge head. Nobody up to see, just old Broom Bromden the half-breed Indian back there hiding behind his mop and can’t talk to call for help. So she really lets herself go and her painted smile twists, stretches to an open snarl, and she blows up bigger and bigger, big as a tractor, so big I can smell the machinery inside the way you smell a motor pulling too big a load.
My favourite character was our viewpoint character, Chief Bromden. He pretends to be deaf and mute, but in his head is a flurry of conspiracy. He sees machinery in everything, behind walls and inside people. This is how he’s decided to make sense of a world that feels so inhuman and cold to him. The writing is really wonderful in this, and Chief’s viewpoint really gave Ken Kesey a chance to add a little poetry to the narrative.
Except the sun, on these three strangers, is all of a sudden way the hell brighter than usual and I can see the…seams where they’re put together. And, almost, see the apparatus inside them take the words I just said and try to fit the words in here and there, this place and that, and when they find the words don’t have any place ready-made where they’ll fit, the machinery disposes of the words like they weren’t even spoken.
Watching Wreck-It Ralph (which was great) midway through listening to this was a bit of a trip. John C. Reilly’s narration was fantastic. The voices he used for the different characters were subtle but immediately distinct. I hope he records more audiobooks in the future.
Now to watch the movie!