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Kesey, Ken 1935–
Kesey, an American, has published two novels, including the masterful One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (the recent film version of which won several Academy Awards), and Kesey's Garage Sale, a collection of reviews, articles, a screenplay, and material originally published as "The Last Supplement" to the Whole Earth Catalog. Many critics believe that Sometimes a Great Notion, an intensely regional novel employing an intricate narrative structure, is his most ambitious work so far. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
In his first novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey demonstrated that he was a forceful, inventive, and ambitious writer. All of these qualities are exhibited, in even higher degree, in Sometimes a Great Notion….
At the beginning the reader is likely to be confused. For instance, Kesey abruptly turns from third person to first and back again with no explanation. He uses italics, parentheses, and capitals to introduce elements from one story into another, and the reader doesn't know who's who or what's what. But, with a little patience, he finds himself and begins to understand what Kesey is trying to do. (p. 21)
Many novelists have experimented with the rapid shifting of point of view, and some have tried to blend past and present—William Faulkner, for instance, in Absalom, Absalom! and "The Bear." But I can think of no one who has made such continuous use of these two methods as Kesey. And he has made them serve his purpose: that is, he has succeeded in suggesting the complexity of life and the absence of any absolute truth. (pp. 21-2)
Sometimes, I feel, he is carried away by a character and writes too much about him. He is, indeed, an extravagant writer, somewhat in the manner of Thomas Wolfe, but most of the time he has himself under control. (p. 22)
Granville Hicks, "Beatnik in Lumberjack Country," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1964 by Saturday. Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), July 25, 1964, pp. 21-2.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1960), was a very beautiful and inventive book violated by a fifth-rate idea which made Woman, in alliance with modern technology, the destroyer of masculinity and sensuous enjoyment. (p. 14)
Big Nurse [who controls a men's psychiatric ward] is a melodramatic device standing for an arbitrary, indefensible anti-feminine argument. Several men in the ward, including the narrator, have been shoved into mental illness by domineering, castrating mothers or wives. A good woman, predictably, tends to be a prostitute, and the good life envisioned beyond the confines of the ward consists in running loose with men and occasionally consorting with prostitutes while drunk….
After one closes Cuckoo and after its narrative magic begins to wear off one starts asking certain questions. Why didn't the physicians in charge of the hospital throw this bitch out of her job? What about all those patients in the women's psychiatric ward—would they be cured by becoming tarts? Why, when foreign literatures so often represent woman as the guardian and guarantor of a sensuous, homely, and humane order of values, do American books so often represent her as the antagonist of these values? I have never been able to swallow Leslie Fiedler's assumption that our literature has been written, for the most part, by the boy-men or innocent closet queens. What, finally, and in the light of his attitude toward relations between the American sexes, would become of Mr. Kesey's talent when he turned to write his second novel?
That novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, is a massive book scaled to its setting in the rainy, tall-tree, logging country of coastal Oregon. The author has a perfect knowledge of the forest, the weather, the rushing rivers, the birds and animals, the work routines and hidden lives of the people of that region and puts these things onto the American literary map once and for all. The book reminded me of Faulkner's Absalom! Absalom! in its hyper-saturated style, its use of the devices of delayed disclosures and of witnesses who try to puzzle out the meaning of an action which is substantially complete as the book opens, its adumbration of classical and biblical archetypes involving titanic confrontations of male siblings, its ambition to convert a slab of social history and the story of a family into a legend about the destiny of western Americans from the last generation of pioneers to the latest generation of rugged individualist entrepreneurs and Indian-hemp-smoking college boys.
But for all its virtuosity and ambition Sometimes a Great Notion is flawed, like its predecessor, by the author's inability to imagine a world where whole men, and women who are neither authoritarian bitches nor decent whores, can get together and make a whole life….
[We] may well wonder what we are witnessing in human terms relevant to the contemporary American milieu which Kesey so vividly specifies. Evidently it is the enshrinement of hard masculine defiance—grounded in despair…. [The protagonists] are heroic but only in a boyish way. Their fate is not tragic and it does not encompass the American fate or give a deeper imaginative meaning to the idea of the final closing of the western frontier. Instead the book is personal and eccentric, and it is question-begging with respect to the large social and economic issues it raises. It is the kind of deeply perplexed and ambiguous book into which many conflicting meanings can be read and the same people who hailed The Fountainhead as a masterpiece will no doubt again disgrace themselves by citing Sometimes a Great Notion as the beginning of a new era in American writing. (p. 15)
Julian Moynahan, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1964 NYREV, Inc.), September 10, 1964.
The Great American Novel is a joke, and so, by all rights, should be Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion, a monstrously long Big Story about a gyppo logging family on the Oregon coast. Hank Stamper is that cliché of television, the invulnerable man discovering his vulnerability, Paul Bunyan living in a world where the strong cannot stand alone…. Kesey has read lots of novels so the book is filled with sudden and usually arbitrary shifts in point of view, scene, and time. On no account, then, can Sometimes a Great Notion be taken with anything like its author's seriousness. Which is a shame, for those with courage enough to read its six hundred odd pages are bound to be impressed by Kesey. The lore is fresh and abundant (and with no trace of Oxford, Mississippi); the details about Oregon, logging, and small union operations are by no means simply informational. Kesey knows why lore is kept alive only by the anachronistic, and he is unsentimental indeed on the relations of a violent pioneering past with a tame and tasteless present. But he is confused, deeply, by his story and by its implications for his main characters. Try as he might, they are embarrassing in their large scale triteness. Because the background is fine, his province seems like a genuine place, but it is finally undistinctive because Kesey is trying to create it with borrowed myths he cannot bring to life. (p. 609)
Roger Sale, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1965 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XVII, No. 4, Winter, 1964–65.
Although Ken Kesey deals with economic strife [in Sometimes a Great Notion], the Oregon "weather," and the conflict between brothers, he really uses these themes as symbols of the "great notion"—reality itself. The union, the community, and the family—all social institutions—distort reality by shaping it in limited ways; it is more complex and threatening than their simple "conventions."
Because he views reality as a series of explosive insights, Kesey refuses to write easy, static fiction. He constantly experiments. He shifts from character to character, until we can no longer accept one tame—let alone heroic—"center of consciousness." He fragments time and space….
Although Kesey is trying to explore reality in a more complex way than he did in his first novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, he still employs "unbalanced" images. These are quirky and hallucinatory; they engulf his characters, who cannot endure such demonic power. But this situation is the whole point of the novel (and the earlier one). We rise to humanity when we submit to the mad flashes in and around us. Nature and humanity—reality itself—have their being in our minds; we can make them obey us only if we exercise self-control.
Kesey wants to eat the whole world. But he does not realize that such Captain Marvel-like desire can be destructive, especially to his real talent. His [second] novel is, ironically, less truthful and powerful than his first because it sacrifices obsessive characterization and imagery to expansive idea. In trying to flex his muscles, he wounds himself. His great notion, which does not do justice to his wild Gothic muse, is admirable but suicidal. (p. 218)
Irving Malin, in Books Abroad (copyright 1965 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 39, No. 2, Spring, 1965.
[The] central thematic thrust of [One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest] strikes even closer to the heart of the American experience now than it did at the time of its publication, more than a decade ago.
Within a highly disciplined form, Kesey has dealt with issues which loom prominently today in the minds of those whose primary criterion for any idea or pursuit is its "relevance." The questioning of a monolithic bureaucratic order; the rejection of stereotyped sexual roles and the simultaneous awareness that healthy sexuality and a clear sense of sexual identity are prerequisites for survival in the human condition; the recognition and rejection of hypocrisy; the devotion to the expression of individual identity: all of these leap into sharp focus through a study of Kesey's technique….
What is particularly impressive about One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest as a first novel is the highly credible integration of prose style and metaphorical patterns with the character of Bromden. Early in the book, Bromden's perceptions and the very rhythms of his speech are both informed and limited by his disturbed mental state. As he moves toward sanity and effective communication with others, Bromden perceives and articulates more clearly, and the prose style of the narrative reflects this development precisely.
Barry H. Leeds, "Theme and Technique in 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,'" in Connecticut Review (© Board of Trustees for Connecticut State Colleges, 1974), April, 1974, pp. 35-50.
That Kesey suggests McMurphy [protagonist of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest] may be considered a modern day Lone Ranger has been detailed by Terry Sherwood in his article "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and the Comic Strip," in Critique [see CLC-1]…. Like the Lone Ranger, McMurphy rebels against injustice. But unlike the masked rider, McMurphy lives by a personal code in which what he wishes to do is just, and whatever stops him is unjust. McMurphy is, therefore, simultaneously a parallel to and a parody of the Ranger. He is out for himself, but in exerting his individuality, he points a way for others to live their own lives. (p. 573)
Kesey is not didactic in handling the Lone Ranger parallel. There is in fact only one reference that directly names this American hero; a character comments before McMurphy is supposed to escape (but does not), "I'd like to stand there at the window with a silver bullet in my hand and ask 'Who wawz that'er masked man?'…" In general, Kesey hints at the parallel through references to comic book characters, and TV cowboy descriptions. The book makes sense by itself without thought of the Lone Ranger or Tonto. But just as one would miss much if he were to read Joyce's Ulysses without considering the wanderings of Odysseus, so too a reading of Kesey's highly suggestive novel that does not consider this parallel is that much poorer. (p. 574)
Andrew S. Horton, in Journal of Popular Culture (copyright © 1975 by Ray B. Browne), Winter, 1974.
A theme of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest concerns the nature of individual freedom—political, social, and psychological. It asserts that in the psychological realm, certain kinds of dependence are healthy: the dependence of a child upon good parents; of a patient upon effective nurses and doctors; and of weak adults upon nurturing strong ones. But this dependent condition is healthy only if it fosters eventual independence. Big Nurse destroys because she must control; hence she blocks the autonomy of her patients, whereas McMurphy nurtures because while he protects, he also encourages the inmates to use their own resources in order to meet the world. This theme, readily apparent to a reader's intelligence, disguises the abundant latent gratification the novel offers one's often unacknowledged pleasure in dependency upon an omnipotent figure. Throughout the novel, with a few exceptional times, McMurphy acts on behalf of the patients, acts so magnificently that a reader laughs…. Here the weak overpower the strong the way children overpower giants in fairy tales. The inmates overpower Big Nurse when McMurphy, a sort of kindly helper figure also common in fairy tales, shows them how; and they overpower her in part gayly, jokingly, in part grimly. The child-like fun of the novel, the use of ridicule as a weapon against oppression, and the demonstration on the part of McMurphy that he is a bigger, better person than Big Bad Nurse all contribute to a reader's readiness to accept the novel's tacit invitation: allow yourself to depend upon the good, omnipotent father; he will help you conquer the wretched stepmother.
Cuckoo's Nest is gratifying especially to the young, then, because while on the one hand it creates an anxiety-ridden fantasy about a destructive mother (and social order), it allays it by creating a powerful, caring father. It also grants indulgence in certain unconscious needs and wishes to be dependent, to feel unjustly treated (masochistic and moral-righteousness pleasures), and to attack and defeat ambivalently-held authority figures (even McMurphy is killed).
To unearth unconscious fantasies as a way of understanding why One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is emotionally satisfying is not to dismiss the power or validity of themes one understands intellectually. Indeed, unconscious fantasies isolated from theme in a piece of fiction sound grotesque, perhaps meaningless. In Cuckoo's Nest as in all fiction, theme not only gives meaning to unconscious fantasy but also functions as a kind of defense. For instance, Cuckoo's Nest is usually read as an indictment of our technological society, which, by standardization and forced conformity, murders human brains even as the shock shop murders the inmates' minds. Psychotherapy is dangerous because this novel alleges that it has become mechanized, a tool for social control wielded by the Combine. But the novel also affirms that man's drive for independence is so strong that no matter how overwhelming the obstacles, he will break free. Too, perhaps nature will once more nurture man where technology now destroys him.
Kesey's anti-technology, pro-nature theme is fittingly supported by his deliberate use of an oedipal triangle marked by a man-woman power struggle, a triangle in which mother acts like a machine against rather than for her children and father tries valiantly to restore them to their own natures and to freedom. The unconscious needs the novel stimulates in its readers also reenforces the theme. For instance, though men yearn to be free, they also fear it and wish to be dependent. Chief Bromden sits in the cuckoo's nest because he has not the courage to face the world. No more do those voluntarily committed—Billy Bibbit and Harding, say, who admit their fear of leaving the institution.
Now Cuckoo's Nest has another theme that seems to counterpoint its blatant Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest message. The strong do indeed aggress against the weak; and though a few escape the trap, most are caught and destroyed. But the Combine is only the ostensible enemy; the real one lurks in men's own minds. Just as in a paranoid fantasy the external persecutors are projections of the sufferer's self-hatred, so is the Combine a projection of the destructive power-drive in men—especially in weak, ineffectual men. While Cuckoo's Nest does show how the strong oppress the weak, it also shows how the weak can destroy the strong. Chief Bromden understands this at the end of the novel, for he knows that McMurphy attacks Nurse Ratched because the inmates compel him to…. The theme of Cuckoo's Nest is not merely the assertion that society will get you. It also realistically affirms that if society gets you, it is because you have complied in both your own and others' destruction. The weak are tyrants, too, subtle and dangerous because they can wake in the strong a sympathetic identification and perhaps guilt: "Why should I have so much when they have so little? Then, maybe I am in some way responsible for their fate." Like the inmates of the asylum, the weak can unintentionally exploit and cannibalize their benefactors, driving them to ruin.
This more subtle theme functions as defense in the novel because without it Cuckoo's Nest would offer a sentimental, over-simple diagnosis of an individual's ills rather than dramatizing without moralizing a complex relationship between man and his society. The novel is idealistic, but not at the expense of clear-sightedness. It abundantly gratifies the id but it also recognizes the needs of an ego that must bring the psyche into harmony with the real world, and the demands of a superego that will not condone flagrant abuses of morality: the guilty are punished. (pp. 41-3)
Kesey does not mislead his readers. For those who choose to hear he says that while the social order is indeed a mighty, complex organism difficult to understand, more difficult to influence and change, nevertheless men are responsible for their own fates. One must be strong to survive, even stronger to prevail, but if such a man is inspirited with that most valued of American qualities, the drive for independence and freedom, he can make it.
Kesey's novel is a kind of phenomenon, though, for the skillful way in which he manages to be hard-headedly realistic (hence to appeal to the ego) as well as indulgent of so many and such powerful unconscious, even infantile drives (the novel richly gratifies the id) and respectful of certain ethical considerations: the evil are punished, but so are those who inflict punishment: crime does not pay (the superego is appeased). The fact that the theme can be doubly-perceived as that technology is responsible for man's destruction and that men are responsible for their own—this both stimulates and manages the anxiety-ridden nuclear fantasy because on the one hand a reader can fully respond to his own regressive fantasies and on the other, he is encouraged to pull out of them and cope with external reality. Kesey's use of the oedipal constellation to pattern human relationships in Cuckoo's Nest functions in much the same way, for by content the novel damns psychoanalytically-informed psychotherapy in such a way as to cater to fantasies of persecution and helplessness; while by artistic design the book uses psychoanalytic theory so as to reassure the reader (as all skillful handling of artistic form and style do) that nevertheless everything is safe. "I, the artist, can handle this material, dangerous though it may be. See, I make it part of the solid structure of this novel. You need not be afraid while I am in control." Mama may be dangerous, but Big Daddy is here to protect his children. (p. 44)
Ruth Sullivan, "Big Mama, Big Papa, and Little Sons in Ken Kesey's 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'," in Literature and Psychology (© Morton Kaplan 1975), No. 1, 1975, pp. 34-44.