Ken Kesey Kesey, Ken (Vol. 3)

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Kesey, Ken (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kesey, Ken 1935–

Kesey, an American writer best known for the black humor of his novels One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion, has now published Kesey's Garage Sale. The comic book adventures of Kesey and "The Merry Pranksters" are the subject of Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

[In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest] McMurphy gives the men not only self-confidence and a renewed sense of virility, but also what Kesey sees as man's only weapon against the waste land—laughter. There has been no laughter in the asylum; McMurphy notices that immediately and comments, "when you lose your laugh you lose your footing."… In effect, he teaches the men to be black humorists, and it is the vision and the balance of black humor that Kesey attempts to employ as a stay against the waste land. To Kesey, being human and having control means being able to laugh, for the rational ordered world has done us in, and only an insurgence of energy from the irrational can break through the fear and sterility that have, paradoxically, made the world go mad. It is ultimately their laughter that the men cram down the Big Nurse's maw in their brief moment of victory….

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a modern fable pitting a fabulous kind of good against a fabulous kind of evil and making use of many of the traditional devices of American romance…. For example: it emphasizes plot and action (not character), and it employs myth, allegory, and symbol. There are equally obvious points of contact between the themes of this book and traditional American themes: for example, the rebellion against old orders and old hierarchies, and the need for communal effort in the face of an alien and overwhelmingly negative force…. It does not return to the past, gaze toward the future, or travel to the unknown to get its "romance" setting. The setting is the static institution which sums up both the preoccupation of our age with the mystery of power, and the substitution of an image of the waste land for the image of a journey between Eden and Utopia. It is shot through with the vitality of its use of the here and the now. We are constantly shocked into discovering how the book is really tied to the recognizable, not to the distant or strange, but to our very own—to technology we know of, to clichés we use, to an atmosphere possible only in the atomic tension of our times. Just as no one can confidently say who is mad and who is not in Kesey's novel, no one can say in what sense his story is real and in what sense it is fiction. The narrator sounds a note that echoes everywhere in the sixties: "You think this is too horrible to have really happened, this is too awful to be the truth! But, please. It's still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it's the truth even if it didn't happen."… The romance elements in the book are not based on devices that whisk us away to some "theatre, a little removed from the highway of ordinary travel," and then whisk us back fueled up with truth. We suspect with horror that what we are seeing very possibly is our highway of ordinary travel, fantastic as it may seem.

Raymond M. Olderman, "The Grail Knight Arrives," in his Beyond the Waste Land: A Study of the American Novel in the Nineteen-Sixties, Yale University Press, 1972, pp. 35-51.

Until I came across ["Kesey's Garage Sale"], I'm afraid I knew Ken Kesey only through Tom Wolfe's fine study, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," and he seemed to me one of that burgeoning band of American writers who are their own most perfect work of art….

"Kesey's Garage Sale" is my first taste of the man's written work. Arthur Miller, who wrote the solemn, if necessarily uneasy, introduction, immediately sets out to disarm critics. "This is, of course, a chaotic volume," he writes, "and cynics will easily dispose of it as a transparent attempt to capitalize on twice-published material, plus stuff lying at the...

(The entire section is 1,895 words.)