Thursday, 5 January 2017

One flew east, one flew west ...

'One flew over the cuckoo's nest' is such an iconic film that the book by Ken Kesey might seem superfluous, but I found that they compliment and enhance each other. The story in the book is narrated by the Chief who is believed by staff and inmates to be deaf and dumb, but who has simply adapted to a world that has ignored him. Into the regular and secure environment of their institution lands McMurphy, who's one aim, right from the start, seems to be to stir things up. The tight ship is run by Nurse Ratched who controls every waking moment of the men's lives, and the Chief recounts what becomes a battle of wills between Mack and the Big Nurse. This book is all about the atmosphere of the mental institution, stifling and monotonous, but also the divorce that happens for the inmates between reality and the life they are experiencing. The Chief, who's presence on the ward is not explained, suffers from delusions and hallucinations, bad dreams, and an extreme paranoia, and throughout the book it is his thoughts and experiences we are pulled in to. It can be quite scary:

"The least black boy and one of the bigger ones catch me before I get ten steps out of the mop closet, and drag me back to the shaving room. I don't fight or make any noise. If you yell it's just tougher on you. I hold back the yelling. I hold back till they get to my temples. I'm not sure it's one of those substitute machines and not a shaver till it gets to my temples; then I can't hold back. It's not a will power thing any more when they get to my temples. It's a ... button, pushed, says Air Raid Air Raid, turns me on so loud it's like no sound, everybody yelling at me hands over their ears from behind a glass wall, facing working around in talk circles but no sounds from the mouths. My sound soaks up all the other sound. They start the fog machine again and it's snowing cold and white all over me like skim milk, so thick I might even be able to hide in it if they didn't have a hold on me. I can't see six inches in front of me through the fog and the only thing I can hear over the wail I'm making is the Big Nurse whoop and charge up the hall while she crashes patients outta her way with that wicker bag. I hear her coming but I still can't hush my hollering. I holler till she gets there. They hold me down while she jams wicker bag and all into my mouth and shoves it down with the mop handle." (p.7)

McMurphy's presence is unsettling for the inmates as much as for Nurse Ratched; their cosy little world is being upset and they are just as worried about changes to their routine. For the Chief however it comes as a revelation, slowly he begins to see things more clearly and to want to change things. Here is his description of the change that McMurphy brings:

"Sweeping the dorm soon's it's empty, I'm after dis mice under his bed when I get a smell of something that makes me realise for the first time since I been in this hospital that this big dorm full of beds, sleeps forty grown men, has always been sticky with a thousand other smells - smells of germicide, zinc ointment, and foot power, smell of piss and sour old-man manure, of Pablum and eyewash, of musty shorts and socks musty even when they're fresh back from the laundry, the stiff odour of starch in the linen, the acid stench of morning mouths, the banana smell of machine oil, and sometimes the smell of singed hair - but never before now, before he came in, the man smell of dust and dirt from the open fields, and sweat, and work." (p.96)

There is an up-side to his sense of being removed and unnoticed; here the Chief describes going into a painting:

"I push my broom up face to face with a great big picture Public Relations bought in one time when it was fogged so thick I didn't see him. The picture is a guy fly-fishing somewhere in the mountains, looks like the Ochocos near Paineville - snow on the peaks showing over the pines, long white aspen trunks lining the stream, sheep sorrel growing in sour green patches. The guy is flicking his fly in a pool behind a rock. It's no place for a fly, it's a place for a single egg on a number-six hook - he'd do better to drift the fly over those riffles downstream.
There's a path running down through the aspen, and I push my broom down the path aways and sit down on a rock and look back out through the frame at the visiting doctor talking with the residents. I can see him stabbing some point in the palm of his hand with his finger, but I can't hear what he says because of the crash of the cold, frothy stream coming down out of the rocks. I can smell the snow in the wind where it blows down off the peaks. I can see mole burrows humping along under the grass and buffalo weed. It's a real nice place to stretch your legs and take it easy." (p.120)

The tale unfolds as McMurphy tries to take the others out of their comfort zone, not appreciating the potential consequences of his high jinks and despite warnings about how the 'Combine' will not be beaten. There is no hope for McMurphy, but there is, in the end, for the Chief. If you love the film I would highly recommend you give the novel a chance, it has a different perspective and added depth to the characters.

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