Total Books Read in 2020: 76
My final prompt for the Back to the Classics Challenge was to read a classic with a movie adaptation. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was already on my Classics Club list and suited the category perfectly. The movie version of this novel is very famous in its own right, and I had somehow never seen it before. I decided that now was the time to read the book and then give the movie a try, to see how they compared.
The novel is told from the point of view of "Chief" Bromden, a long-term patient at a psychiatric hospital. He pretends like he is deaf and mute, but he can actually hear and speak just fine - he simply chooses not to interact with others. He struggles with paranoia and is subject to a lot of delusions. He believes that he and all the other patients are being controlled by something he calls the "combine," a vast mechanism that uses listening devices to break everyone's spirits and keep them in line. This idea is personified in Nurse Ratched, the head nurse on the ward. She controls the patients and staff with an iron fist, and employs several cruel strategies to keep everyone in their place. Bromden, and everyone else, are afraid of her.
Bromden is a keen observer as well, and as a result, he knows quite a lot about the other patients and staff at the hospital. Through his (unreliable) narration, he tells us the story of what happens when a new patient, Randle McMurphy, is admitted to his ward. Right away, McMurphy is obviously different from the rest of the men. He's loud, crude, and doesn't care much for authority. He's also extremely charismatic and quite fond of gambling. Right away, he begins making friends with the other patients and making friendly wagers with them. They bet on cards and many other random things over McMurphy's first few weeks. Eventually, as he grows closer and closer to the other patients, he starts to see them as more than easy marks. He begins to actually care about them a little and starts encouraging them to laugh and loosen up.
Of course, Nurse Ratched is aghast at these developments. McMurphy's unpredictable, boisterous behavior and his effect on the other patients are elements that she can't control, and it drives her crazy. Determined to regain her dominance over the ward, she exerts as much cruel, quiet pressure on the men as she can. Frustrated with her behavior, McMurphy sets up a new wager with the men. He bets them that he can get rid of Nurse Ratched in a week. This bet sets off a chain of events leading to a violent, shocking conclusion. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a story about the machine of American society, individuality, control, and what happens when mental health is thrown into that mix.
My thoughts on this book are very scattered, and I've been struggling to write this review for a few days now. I did enjoy reading it, and I think it's a unique story that gives its readers a lot to think about. Its characters are well developed, with McMurphy and Nurse Rached in particular being very memorable. The writing style was very readable too and the story was easy to get into. I liked its exploration of mental health issues in the sixties, including the use of electroshock therapy and lobotomies. It's clear that Kesey was no fan of how patients in these facilities were treated during this time and he does a good job conveying the barbarity of a lot of the practices typically employed. This feels like a notable postmodern classic when you are reading it, and it's clear to see why the work has endured over time. It's not exactly my favorite kind of book, but I can see why others love it. I'm sure the movie adaptation aids its popularity as well, as many of the performances in that are widely praised.
What stopped me from just writing a generally positive review and moving on here was how incredibly poorly it has aged. Racism, sexism, and homophobia are blatant throughout its pages. The black orderlies that work at the hospital are continually referred to using slurs (including the N-word at one point) and described as homosexual rapists, there is a Japanese nurse repeated referred to using a slur, and the female characters are all either evil or promiscuous. At one point, the men tell McMurphy that Nurse Rached is unbeatable because she is so old that no one can "get it up" for her to rape her into compliance, which is pretty horrible on several different levels. Of course, one can always make the argument that the time period the novel was written in excuses this. To an extent, I suppose it does. However, the sheer amount of offensive material in here seems extreme.
This novel, with it's blend of strong literary elements and outdated, offensive content made me question - at what point does a classic novel outlive its readability? If I were black, or gay, I certainly wouldn't feel like reading this was valuable or enriching to my life. As a woman, I was pretty close to feeling like it wasn't really worth the read as it was. I think this is one case where just watching the movie adaptation is probably enough, especially if you belong to one of the groups Kesey marginalizes.
So ultimately, this was a mixed bag for me. I settled on a three star review - a middle rating for a book I felt split on. The novel is clearly notable for its time period and the story is compelling. However, it has not aged well at all, which makes me question whether anyone really needs to read it anymore. There are so many wonderful novels out there in the world. I'm still not sure if the (admittedly sizable) literary merits of this one justify me spending my limited reading time on it.
After the disaster that was reading The Last Man, I was anxious to get into another book and revive my interest in reading. Next up on my list was The Witches by Stacy Schiff. This nonfiction novel about the Salem witch trials was part of my True Books 2020 Challenge. I had been saving this one until October to read, as it seemed to be a good match for the season. I live close enough to Salem to go there for a weekend, so I was hoping to learn about all about what happened back in 1692, and then go see some of the historical sites. Covid has ruined that plan, at least for now, but I was still interested to learn about this weird part of American history.