One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

I think a lot of people have seen this movie and because it’s so good in that medium have never bothered to read the source material.  Until a couple of weeks ago, I had done neither which was a complete shame.  I have a couple of good friends who, without any reservations, immediately name this novel as their all-time favorite.  And now I know why.

The story takes place in a mental institution (seemingly only for men) and is narrated by Chief Bromden, the apparently deaf and dumb mute patient of Native American heritage (which the book does a great job of making relevant and the movie almost entirely ignores).  A new patient/inmate has just joined the ward – McMurphy –  and an all-out war begins between the men (mostly McMurphy) and the Big Nurse Ratched.

This novel is so smartly written and so much above my intellect level that I don’t see how I can do this story justice.  Chief Bromden is the perfect narrator because no one holds back in front of him.  Everyone is convinced he’s deaf.  So he listens and really hears the truth behind everyone’s motives.  Kesey brilliantly hides the true nature of Chief’s reliability by showing the inner workings of his mental illness – he’s plagued by some really heinous hallucinations.  But eventually, you come to see that his visions of a mechanical organization running the show and keeping the men down, putting them in a fog (literally and metaphorically) is just how he processes the truth he sees in the totalitarian hospital establishment and society at large.  Chief is the most reliable crazy EVER.

Besides Chief, all of Kesey’s characters really shine and very rarely come off completely insane or as caricatures of mental patients even though it’s quite obvious they are dealing with heavy issues.  They are all so likeable, even when they are repulsive, and you root for them with every turn of the page.  My only beef with having characters that aren’t convincingly sick and a hospital that undermines psychological health is that so many people often write off mental illness as ‘imaginary’, especially during the 50s and 60s.  But Kesey manages to rise above this pitfall because the book is really a depiction and commentary on society at large, not the mental health field.

One of the more controversial and interesting aspects of Cuckoo’s Nest is the gender discussion.  All the male patients are plagued by one thing – a woman in their lives.  Even in the hospital, their number one nemesis is Nurse Ratched – perhaps one of the best female villains of all time.  Lots of readers believe this  story to be extremely anti-feminist, but I don’t agree.  Yes, women are the villains and the men are all seen as castrated lumps under the authority of the all-mighty vagina.  But how many times has this situation been reversed in literature?  How many times have women repressed their sexuality and gone a little bat shit crazy?  Since Shakespeare, at least.  So I read the gender imbalance as a sort of gender balancing device.  I liked that the powerhouses were female and the victims male.  I liked that Kesey explores the ridiculousness of what society deems ‘masculinity’.  I don’t think he’s putting women down; I think he’s forcing the question:  What is gender?

Highly, high recommended read.  Kesey’s writing is gorgeous and filled with some of the best literary quotes I’ve ever had the pleasure to highlight.  Also, extremely readable – almost a page turner.  As for the movie, as great as it is, the book thrashes it to shreds.  I hate how little they use Bromden (his hallucinations are NEVER mentioned)  in the film compared to his huge role in the novel – really my only serious beef.  Jack Nicholson is just a genius (like we didn’t all know that already) and this film really highlights the depth of his acting.  So for those who have somehow missed this story – Go enjoy both mediums, pronto!

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

My TIME’s 100 Best selection for February was Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe for two reasons:  It was short and appeared infinitely more readable than a Pynchon novel.  The added bonus of reading an African writer didn’t hurt matters. My reading history is sorely lacking in African post-colonial novels and this unfortunate fact needs to change.

Okonkwo lives in a small Nigerian village with his wives and many children.  He has risen from the ashes of his shameful, lazy father to be one of the most powerful men in his village only to eventually fall from grace.  Interwoven is the fateful colonization of Okonkwo’s Nigeria by the white men who bring their Christianity, education, and bizarre ways of life.  And so, what life and community exists at the novel’s beginning has literally fallen apart by the turn of the last page.

Achebe’s storytelling is striking.  His prose is concise and almost starkly simplistic, but manages to build a world so effortlessly complex.  Okonkwo is not a man you will like.  More than likely, you’ll come to somewhat loathe him.  He suffers from daddy issues, sexism, and a violent temper that results in bloody and bruised wives and children.  His ideas of what a ‘man’ should be involve ruling with an iron fist, little compassion, and a lust for power.  But just when you think he’s completely irredeemable, he reels you back in with his love for Ezinma – his oldest daughter and favorite child.  So just when you think a character is only WHAT he is, you realize that they are always MORE.  And while their past behavior will never be acceptable or forgivable, you are willing to get to know this despicable person better because you can always learn something, perhaps most especially from those you despise.

Reading Things Fall Apart functions beautifully as a cultural immersion.  Achebe doesn’t pussyfoot (yes, I just used that word) with making the immersion easy either.  The characters and villages have names that are both authentic and extremely difficult to keep track of.  He intersperses foreign words liberally and doesn’t stop to define all of them (although there is a glossary in the back).  Cultural customs, tribal legends, and other societal norms of the Nigerian experience are hardly ever fully explained.  Achebe prefers to drop his readers into the middle of village life and say, ‘You wanted to know what Colonial Africa is like?  Well, here you go.  Good luck.”  This method was both infuriating and brilliant.  As a reader, you start as an outsider, but by the time the ‘white men’ arrive you find yourself with the audacity to now consider yourself a local and fiercely protective of your new home DESPITE THE FACT THAT MORE THAN LIKELY YOU ARE THE ‘WHITE MAN’ IN REAL LIFE (metaphorically speaking, obviously).

A word of warning for future readers who are sensitive to the mistreatment of women:  there are many unpleasant episodes in this story.  I read some comments from other readers who were put off by Achebe’s supposed misogynistic tendencies, but I think that’s supremely unfair.  Achebe’s novel is not belittling to women, but instead is frank in depicting the brutality that sometimes exists in tribal life – or really, life in general.  After all, misogynists come in all shapes and sizes.  In many ways, I think Things Fall Apart rises above these nasty incidents to become highly respectful and celebratory toward the female gender.  Consider my favorite passage:

“It’s true that a child belongs to its father.  But when a father beats his child, it seeks sympathy in its mother’s hut.  A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet.  But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland.  Your mother is there to protect you.  She is buried there.  And that is why we say that mother is supreme.”

Without a doubt, I highly recommend squeezing this story into your already overflowing TBR piles.  Achebe is an author I’ve only just now discovered, but plan to spend many days with in the future.  Definitely deserving of the TIME’s list and far more accessible than Pynchon – thank goodness.

Book View: The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

So…once upon a time I was an English major.  During my stint as an English major, I learned about many literary movements – Victorian, Romantic, Modernism, and so forth.  Then we covered Post-Modernism and I suddenly wanted to switch my major to Physics, build a time machine, and brain-wash all the great post-modern writers against writing their crazy, rambling nonsense.  Alas, this dream never came to light and so, several years later, I’m still trying to make some sort of coherent-ness out of Thomas Pynchon’s novels.  If you have found this elusive enlightenment, please share your wisdom in the comments.

You’re probably thinking, what’s this lady going on about already?  See, I’m determined to read all the books on TIME magazine’s 100 best English language novels since 1923 (see full list here).  And of course, Pynchon makes an appearance.  Actually, I think he makes two appearances (I’m afraid to check) and so I decided to get him out of the way early.  Bravely, this week I read (stumbled through) The Crying of Lot 49 and still haven’t recovered.

I don’t even know how to write a synopsis for this tiny little novella, but here goes:  Oedipa Maas (yes, that’s her name) receives a letter informing her that an ex-boyfriend has passed and named her as executor of his estate.  During her executor duties, she uncovers a long-lived feud between rival postal companies and what appears to be a global conspiracy represented by the following symbol:

Oedipa spends the rest of the novel as amateur detective trying to discover the truth behind the mail mystery and how her ex was involved.

Sounds logical, even mildly interesting, no?  Well, the thing you have to know is that Pynchon’s novel is a satire of life, of writing, of story – of everything.  So what appears to matter doesn’t matter, and that’s the point.  A main theme is breakdown in communication symbolized by the difficulty the reader has in following Pynchon’s narrative.  This book is a hot mess and a hot mess on purpose.  Without Sparknotes, I would never have been able to follow along.

As an example of post-modern literature, Pynchon’s novels (all of them) excel.  Where Modernism tries desperately to make sense out of chaos (think Virginia Woolf), Post-Modernism accepts the chaos, embraces the chaos, and then spits the chaos back into your face.  If this sounds exciting to you, then give it a go, but just know these novels are far more challenging that Shakespeare or Dickens.  I’d suggest starting with DeLillo’s White Noise, which is infinitely more readable than Pynchon.

If you must read The Crying of Lot 49, I’ll admit that it’s not all bad.  Of the six chapters, I enjoyed three – especially the scene where Metzger seduces Oedipa.  Oedipa’s night of endless roaming the streets of San Fran, spotting the muted post horn symbol everywhere was also fun to read and very well done.  Pynchon’s talent lies in language and imagery – he can also be quite humorous at times.

After finishing this book, I immediately picked up mind-trash (a.k.a. The Vampire Diaries 1&2) to give my brain a rest.  Look for that review this week as well as my first Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men!