Book 6 – One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

McMurphy might be one of the greatest literary characters ever. But he doesn’t make this novel for me. Nurse Ratched, the Big Nurse, might be one of the great tragi-villians ever. But she doesn’t make this novel for me. Instead, the narrator, a Columbia Indian, thought to be deaf and dumb, is one who makes this novel for me. Published in 1963, Ken Kesey’s brilliant observation of an American mental asylum is a microscopic examination of American life. There is the over arching reach of Big Nurse, an autocratic head nurse, where assimilation is mandatory for self-survival. When faced with more time in jail, McMurphy, a self-confessed gambling fool, opts for admission and assessment and finds himself in the ward run by Nurse Ratched.

This guy is redheaded with long red sideburns and a tangle of curls out from under his cap, needing cut a long time, and he’s broad as Papa was tall broad across the jaw and shoulders and chest, a broad devilish grin, and he’s hard in a different kind of way from Papa, kind of the way a baseball is hard under the scuffed leather.

In the ward he finds society reproduced. There are those who are the Acutes, drugged, passive. Then there are the Chronics, vegetables, in wheel chairs, medicated. Big Chief, the narrator, crosses between the groups. Sometimes he is coupled with the Acutes and sometimes Chronics. His observations are in moment, stream of consciousness, interchanged with reflection childhood moments that are idealic, yet regretful. Out of all of the characters, he has lost the most. His traditions, his land and self-determination.

But I know it isn’t the stink that keep them away from the Chronic side so much as they don’t like to be reminded that here’s what could happen to them someday.

The novel is at once, serious and full of some of the darkest humour. The question remains for each character, are they in the ward for their own protection? Are they really that crazy? In the way the dialogue between the characters is reproduce is the beauty of the written word. The ability of Big Chief to see and hear things that others ignore in their arrogance, in the heart of the novel.

 

‘…everyone must follow the rules.’…’Ya know, ma’am’, he says, ‘ya know- that is the ex-act thing somebody always tells me about the rules…’ He grins. They both smile back and forth at each other, sizing each other up. ‘…just when the figure I’m about to do the dead opposite.’

 McMurphy is what, from 1963, is about to come across America. He fights and f*cks, he has served his country (his role in an escape from a Chinese prisoner of war camp during the Korean War is barely mentioned, but is parallel to his role in the ward), he is an all American. The scene of his rallying support to watch the World Series speaks to the humanistic in me; the recount of Chief, when all the ‘patients’ sit and watch the blank tv is one of the best I’ve read.

If somebody’d come in and took a look, men watching a blank TV, a fifty-year-old woman holering and squealing at the back of their heads about discipline and order and recriminations, they’d of thought the whole bunch was crazy as loons.

But is McMurphy just a self-serving fool? Is he just in the ward to control, much like Big Nurse? Is he just a more convincing version of her and just may be is he just as dangerous? McMurphy does learn, through the philosopher Harding, of the patients who are self-admitted and those who are committed. Many of the men McMurphy considers mad are self-admitted, seeking some percentage of normality. Yet, he, the self-appointed rebel leader has been committed. That means he is at the mercy of Big Nurse and what Chief considers the ‘Combine’, the dictatorship controlling every moment of the ward. Should he give in, be like the rest, give up his rebellion against the Big Nurse? Read this novel.

‘What the hell for?’

‘Why, the patient’s good, of course. Everything done here is for the patient’s good. You may sometimes get the impression, having lived only on our ward, that the hospital is a vast efficient mechanism that would function quite well if the patient were not imposed on it, but that’s not true.’

 

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Book 5 – The Collector

There is a woman. Young, beautiful. She is studied by a man, not much, but still older. She is the new society- educated, an art student at the Slade. He works in an office, having served his conscription and now his obsession is but one. At face value, John Fowles’ first published work, The Collector, is a study of Britain of the time, one of culture and one of conformity. This is dark novel of self-obsession, of the misuse the power and the constant conflict of gender and class.

But forgetting’s not something you do, it happens to you. Only it didn’t happen to me.

We begin with the catalyst, Frederick’s win at the pools. Suddenly, he has money. He quits his job, his last living relatives, having taken him in after his father’s death, travel to Australia. He is alone. He has nothing but the winnings. While he might have nothing, he wants only one thing: the petite Miranda.

Stop thinking about class, she’d say. Like a rich man telling a poor man to stop thinking about money.

Miranda is everything he is not. There is something about how Fowles sets up both the characters, the clever Miranda against the benign Frederick. The interplay is not rewarding, but stormy and darkly lit. It is as if the time of revolution being born, those early years of the decade of the 1960’s, far enough from the war, a time that should be full of hope and promise.

Frederick- or Ferdinand (as Miranda calls him to his face and Caliban- from The Tempest- in her diary) gives us the first part of the novel. He is very simple, the prose blank and perfectly paced. There is no drama, even the descriptions of the kidnap and her attempts at escape. The method, clean, pristine is just as he sees himself and his Miranda, just as clean and delicate. He collects and presents butterflies, his still life. She creates, an artist. There is to be only one conclusion, he will live, she will die.

This is death. This is hell.

Miranda’s diary makes up the central portion. Her portraits of her pervious life are tinted with longing and logic suggests regret. Her musings about the older artist are full of the ideas of the age. Everything should be questioned, meaning is fluid, constructed by the individual. She is passionate. Her room constricts her every thought, but it is not the physical constraints that cause the pain, instead the mental.

The black and the black and the black.

The last sections are as Miranda’s health draws to a close. The naivety of the Frederick character fulfils all the criteria for socio-path. The irony being the beauty and ideas die, while the stagnant, bland survives. Ideas die so the practical can live. The question is, as the novel ends, will he go out and find another butterfly to be his guest?