Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Capitalist's Cuckoo's Nest

Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is, I believe, a major influence on Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. Both novels are strongly influenced by Foucault, Nietzsche, gender issues, and the Marxist movements within Postmodernism. For example gender, particularly men’s issues, is stressed in both works, especially in Fight Club, one theme of which seems to be influenced by Ken Kesey’s words in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: “We comical little creatures can’t even achieve masculinity in the rabbit world, that’s how weak and inadequate we are.” (63) Both novels seem to be lamenting the loss of masculine identity, and although both works dismiss homosexuality as a solution, they blame ‘modern matriarchy’ as in Ken Kesey’s novel, and ‘Marla Singer’ as the source of all the “gun, anarchy and explosion.” (14) But what I am aiming to focus on here is the issue of conformity. The idea came to me when I encountered the 2007 edition of Kesey’s novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which had a foreword by Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club.

“I had to keep on acting deaf if I wanted to hear at all” ... “I don’t seem like I ever been me. How was McMurphy be what he is?!” These are the words of Chief Bromden the half Native American narrator of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

The question of identity is raised on many occasions in Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The question of being ‘oneself’ in a society where one is governed by ‘the Combine’, or the dominant authoritative power. However there is one man here, Randle McMurphy, who is a rebel. But his being a rebel only reinforces the foundations of ‘the Combine’. His fate proves so. The Unique rebel, the distinct individual we see in McMurphy is silenced once and for all by the time he is proven to be too much of a threat. And eventually his harsh punishment only reinforces the foundations of the dominating authority. On the other hand, a timid character like Tommy Bibbit, quite the opposite of McMurphy, also reinforces and empowers the system in quite an effective way.

But in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest there is a character like Chief Bromden, whom Chuck Palahniuk, in his foreword published in 2007, classifies as a member of a third group which is neither an angry rebel nor a timid conformist; but indeed a man who is silent but thoughtful, silenced and marginalized but visionary, Bound but not for ever.

Chief Bromden is a man who, by observing a rebel like McMurphy, sees his awareness of society altered in a positive way, and goes on to form his identity and eventually act out in the proper time. The future that he builds for himself is obviously unknown which leaves it open for the reader to judge whether his struggle against the authority reaches its end or not.

Considering Palahniuk’s acknowledgement of Chief Bromden as the third kind of a social subject, it would be interesting to look at his most famous novel, Fight Club. The unnamed narrator, the employee who is dissolved into the routine and pettiness of consumerism is confronted by a modern type of Randle McMurphy: Tyler Durden. Tyler is similar to McMurphy in the sense that he acts upon his will, and does possess one true sense of identity which is coveted by the conformist society. However his rebelliousness is quite different.

Tyler is conscious and fully aware of the pettiness that is encompassing the society and its subjects. He detests consumerism, the new weapon with which ‘the Combine’ governs and controls its subjects. Tyler Durden, like McMurphy urges his admirers to act and stamp a sense of ‘being oneself’ in a postmodern society. Although his acts of rebellion are far more bizarre than those offered by McMurphy, both are acting against their respective societies of particular interests. McMurphy is rebelling against the authority in a mental institution, which could, in a way, be interpreted through symbolism as contemporary American society. Tyler, however, is rebelling against a late 20th century America which is beginning to rot by the pettiness of its own people who are born out of television to work jobs they detest and to buy stuff they need not.

Tyler’s hooliganism, and quasi-terrorist plots of his ‘project Mayhem’ could not match the struggles of McMurphy. But what is obvious is that both are governed by the force of ‘humanism’. Both are struggling to bring a sense of identity to the postmodern man.

Having Tyler Durden and Randle McMurphy on one hand we have the narrator and Chief Bromden, who are quite different characters, at least during the course of the novel and not through the endings.

Palahniuk considers Chief Bromden a visionary who not only chooses not to act like McMurphy, but also despises the idea of being a Billy Bibbit. He is classified as a member of one “third category”, which, although with an uncertain future, offers better hope by his final act of escape from the ward. Bromden seeks a future “that is not a reaction to or an extension of any mental ward where we find ourselves trapped at the present moment.” (xiii)

The unnamed narrator of Fight Club however does not act like Chief Bromden. He realizes, during the course of the novel, that he should delve into Tyler and be one. The narrator becomes so much obsessed with Tyler that eventually finds himself, literally, one Tyler Durden. He becomes fully committed to the cause of Tyler, participating in Fight Club, and starting Project mayhem. However through the end of the novel, the narrator becomes aware of the fact that the cause of Tyler is not the key to salvation of humanity. His harsh rebellious hooliganism and angry efforts against ‘the Combine’ result in nothing because he will eventually be silenced. The narrator, towards the end of the novel, opts to move towards balance. Much explanation is needed to elaborate on the ending of Fight Club, but what is worthy of attention is that the narrator’s sudden break away from Tyler is something to think about.

What is interesting in discussion of the narrators in Fight Club and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is that both choose to eliminate their inspirations and revolutionary muses, but in quite different ways. Chief Bromden kills McMurphy because he has been bullied and tortured enough by the authority, and because he wants McMurphy to remain a legend. The Fight Club narrator, though, kills Tyler Durden because, more than a legend he is in need of mental balance. Putting aside the differences, both the characters eliminate their inspirations to move towards the future on their own, because more than anything they are in need of oneness and genuine sense of identity. One governed not by the government, the ward, Nurse Ratched or the consumer culture; nor even by the Fight Club, Project Mayhem, Tyler Durden or Randle McMurphy.

In the end, Chief Bromden is free to run to the wilderness to gain and regain whatever he has been aiming to fight for. The Fight Club narrator, though, ends up in a mental institution after his failed act of suicide. The road to salvation, for Fight Club narrator, seems to be longer than that of Chief Bromden. Let’s not forget that Chief Bromden and Fight Club narrator belong to two different generations. Although they both are “generations of men raised by women,” and are stuck into the fabric of ‘defining new masculinity’, they belong to two different stages of American contemporary history. The Fight Club narrator, institutionalized, let’s say, in the late nineties has a lot to brood and think about when he watches on a ward TV the World Trade Center collapse in 2001. The legend of Tyler Durden seems to have died with that shot into the narrator’s mouth, but the legend of moving towards balance and oneness is yet to continue. Maybe Chief Bromden is still in the wilderness awaiting the narrator and...a better future.


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