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One of the iconic works of America's 1960s counter-culture
on 26 September 2008
`Granted I am the inmate of a mental asylum': the famous opening words of Oscar Matzerath in The Tin Drum could equally be applied to pretend-deaf and dumb Chief Bromden who narrates Ken Kesey's dark and sombre satire on the heavy-handed treatment of mental illness in modern America. Set in the golden days of electro-shock therapy, psychedelic drugs and frontal-lobe lobotomies, the giant half-Indian, tells the story of Pendleton Mental Institution, Oregon, ruled with an iron fist by Big Nurse, an allegorical Big Brother, and her carefully hand-picked team who control the soul-crushing routine of the brow-beaten inmates, cynically divided into Acutes, Chronics, Vegetables and Disturbed. However, the balance of power is sent into a tailspin by the arrival of Randle McMurphy, a hard-drinking, hard-living Irish-American, who takes up the cudgel on behalf of his oppressed companions as he attempts to break the hold of Big Nurse and, by extension, the all-powerful authorities. The charismatic McMurphy, who has faked insanity to escape a prison sentence, bears a close resemblance to the almost Christ-like Cool Hand Luke who similarly takes on the prison authorities in the eponymous film made five years after this novel was published. Like Luke, McMurphy is at times exasperated by the way that his colleagues so often fail to support him and leave him to fight back single-handed, but he retains a touching devotion to them nevertheless.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest can be read on many levels. Though essentially a satirical critique on mental institutions and their methods, it also demonstrates the oppressive role that authorities play in controlling and manipulating the lives of individuals in different circumstances, and is a sharp comment on the blurred distinction between sanity and insanity. Boisterous and brutal, it remains one of the iconic works of America's 1960s counter-culture and one of that country's most original and brilliant novels.