Sometimes a Great Ken Kesey

Ken KeseyOn this day in 1935, the great American novelist Ken Kesey was born. I really only know him from his two novels One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion. But he wrote more than this and I suppose I will have to go back and find what else he did. Certainly, those are two of the greatest American novels ever written. And he is probably the greatest writer of his generation, except for maybe Heller, but certainly not Salinger or Capote or Roth — as great as they may be.

There are generally two things that I think about with regard to Kesey’s work. First is his decision to write One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the first person. He could have written it in the third person and it probably would have worked well enough. But there would have been various problems. One is simply the way the plot is told. There would be no reason not to know far more of what’s going on outside the ward. But because Chief is thought to be mute, he is allowed limited access to staff meetings. But the most important aspect of the first person narrative is that the book is about Chief. One of the great disappointments in the film (as great as it is), is that we don’t get to see Chief’s evolution from mental illness to mental health.

The second thing about Kesey’s work is the way he shifts point of view in Sometimes a Great Notion. Basically, he does what Virginia Woolf’s does in To the Lighthouse. But Kesey is far more clear. Reading Woolf is like floating around at see, being pushed his way and that. It isn’t about the story but rather the journey. Kesey is interested in telling a story. And he has great insight into character that isn’t really true of the early stream of consciousness writers.

In 1989, Kesey wrote a novel collectively with 13 graduate students at the University of Oregon, Caverns. Three years later, he wrote his first novel in almost three decades, Sailor Song. And then he wrote a collaboration with Ken Babbs, Last Go Round. All of them sound interesting. I will have to see if I can dig them up. Until then…

Happy birthday Ken Kesey!

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