The Two Extremes and the Resulting Compromise


I have no obvious vices like smoking or drinking but this year, there were two books so far which had compelled me to indulge in these things. Upon finishing Patrick Suskind's Perfume: The Story of a Murderer two months ago, I immediately went to the nearest convenience store and bought a single cigarette stick to corrupt my lungs with; even just for that night because the reading experience was quite exceptional and I needed the taste of nicotine in my mouth to preserve it somehow. Now, as I write this review, I suddenly had this overpowering craving to drink booze, and vodka, I find, has always had a soothing effect on me which was exactly what I needed to suckle on once I did finish the end of this novel. I'm drinking it right now as I type.
"The story is always about someone, a man or woman, who didn't seem to fit into the world and always shocked people by misbehaving. There is the rebel who tries to destroy the social order and the follower who tries to please it. And then there was the witness; one who is transformed and enlightened from all this. The rebel, the follower and the witness. The two extremes and the resulting compromise."

I suppose like most people, I know of this book because of the movie starring Jack Nicholson in the lead role but I barely remember that film adaptation now because I think it had almost been a decade since I last saw it; which was great because at least I get to read this book with fresh eyes with only remnants of what I have watched from the movie sometimes resurfacing when I read a particular scene that I can somewhat recall seeing before. Nevertheless, reading Ken Kasey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has been really thrilling in spite of the narrative's slow-burn tendencies. Told in the first-person perspective of the Native American Chief Bromden, the book reads like a journal of personal experiences and interactions of this said character with the people he is co-existing with inside the 'loony bin' where the story majorly took place. There were even quick sketches of certain in between the pages which gives the narrative an authentic 'diary' feel to it.

Chief Bromden as the narrator for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is someone I would consider the most reliable of all the unreliable narrators out there (if that even makes sense). Because of his heritage, he usually keeps to himself, content on people assuming he's either deaf, mute or dumb--or all of the above. This is a man who prioritizes self-preservation and keeping up with the status quo, more so than any character in this book and that's mostly because he knows first-hand how being different will get one into trouble. He had been in several other mental institutions before and know of the small horrors and limited compensations that people who are considered 'unfit' have to undergo. Through his eyes, readers get to acquaint themselves with the overall routine and the ridiculously inhibiting way of life that patients at the mental hospital he is currently committed in have no other choice but to live by. In charge of all this is the middle-aged re-inforcer of the most precise of rules, Nurse Ratched, whose staunch ways re-define a whole new level of totalitarian matriarchy.

I find Bromden's descriptions of her physical appearance, habits and eccentricities to be rather chilling since he always compares her to something of a detached automation than an actual living, breathing person with feelings of her own. Because of this limited perspective and insight, we never really get to see any kind of vulnerability or sympathetic trait from Nurse Ratched unless of course her perceived weaknesses are interpreted rather antagonistically not necessarily by Bromden himself but by the other male characters. If this was truly a nest of cuckoos then Nurse Ratched may as well be their mother bird and she governs every facet of their life and she often demonstrates her power and influence in the most gratingly passive-aggressive manner ever imaginable. There is certainly a matter of questioning the author's intent that somewhat demonizes female authority and I personally encourage that discussion because any criticism regarding its chauvinism towards its only main female character can now be raised and argued by readers of my generation. I do think Nurse Ratched is portrayed in a harsher light than needed and this is worth a discussion most probably because of her gender and what she directly (and in latent terms) symbolizes in relation to that.

Like any promising and compelling story on overthrowing the oppressive regime or taking away the control from the most inhumane of overlords, this book's knight-in-shining-armor is a less pristine version of said trope and this is realized in no other than Randle Patrick McMurphy, a gambler and recently diagnosed 'psychopath' who is all kinds of charming and disarming, much to the initial dread and eventual relief of the other patients including Bromden. McMurphy's very role and participation in the book is to create a shift in power dynamics among Nurse Ratched and her blabbering, passive and frightened patients. Through McMurphy's carefully cultivated chaos, the other male characters of this book started to recognize the seemingly small injustices and that they shouldn't have to put up with Nurse Ratched's deliberate manipulations. The maltreatment they are suffering was often described as rather mundane or inconsequential--such as the lack of enough free time to do other activities, or the refusal of the staff to cater to some more humane methods to pacify them--but their rights are still being violated little by little until these men are reduced into spineless fools who quiver at the sight of Nurse Ratched's shadow.

Clever and more than a match to Nurse Ratched's imposing authority, McMurphy quite literally gets the patients riled up, waking up these men from their once restful and lethargic states so they can have a more meaningful purpose than just take whatever the medical staff would give them, mediation or otherwise. McMurphy is not a saintly liberator, however, and Bromden recognizes that there is ego and impulse in every action that McMurphy commits; sometimes he deliberately tries to rattle the one in charge either to know that he could or to reap whatever kind of  benefits he will receive if he did succeed. Nevertheless, Bromden becomes fond of him and so do the other patients because for the first time in a long time they have someone to look up to, someone to defend them and someone they can consider their friend against a nameless, overreaching system that oppresses them and makes them feel less human and more burdensome creatures who can never fully function outside the confines of the facility. It's a rather poignant affair especially when McMurphy realizes what he meant to these men and that he himself is beginning to care about them beyond seeing them as an audience he can perform his anarchist tricks for. 

Bromden also grows midway through the book, realizing that he doesn't have to hide under 'the fog' anymore, not when McMurphy has shown him that the only person standing in the way of his freedom and self-esteem issues is himself and once Bromden overcame his insecurities and fears, his trauma of his past concerning his father has lessened, and he began to fight back against the same oppression that has him kneeling down for a very long time. 

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has some riveting social commentary regarding the function and tension of power constructs that also happens to include a scathing indictment of the health care system back then when it came to treating mentally damaged patients. The book also examines in a quite humorous but still piercingly philosophical way this inherent inclination of humans to rebel against an authority or refuse a system they perceive as demeaning and aggressive. There are plenty enough layers in this novel that readers can freely discuss and argue about for days. 

Deceptively slow in establishing its key players and moments, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is guaranteed to be very satisfying midway and until the very unexpected end.

RECOMMENDED: 8/10

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