Originally from my MFA work, 2012
Response to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott, Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh.
This set of readings is a bit eclectic, but follows my focus of reading that may lend insight directly to my work at hand, versus a general insight into the writing craft.
One Few Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of those classic books that I somehow managed to avoid reading early on and then never got around to picking up as I aged. I liked the suggestion that this was an apropos novel to my own writing as the protagonist is a quiet, passive character that builds slowly and the narrative itself is dominated by a powerful secondary character. This meshes with my current work incredibly well.
Cuckoo’s Nest is like its dominant character; it dominates the three books this month with powerful writing that one would love to imitate, without making it obvious. I am sure that this will influence my own work in progress. One of the techniques, which I probably will not change in my own work, is that despite the Chief as a passive character, it is written as a first person and as a reflection backwards in time. The effects of this are subtle, but very important. First person lends us an intimacy that makes even a passive character three dimensional and the reader feels slightly more sympathetic toward the Chief. This sympathy is augmented by the fore knowledge that something has changed and that the Chief is probably out of the institution, because he is narrating about the past and we feel that the narrator himself is not totally passive.
This focuses the mystery not on whether he will change, but on how it happens. My own work is focusing on whether it will happen and if so how.
Kesey’s use of looking backwards as the narrator has an interesting subtlety: the narrator appears more unreliable, more unbalanced, in the beginning than he does toward the end. Thus, as he progresses in his own growth—cure for want of a better term—the narration changes also.
What the Chronics are—or most of us—are machines with flaws inside that can’t be repaired, flaws born in, or flaws beat in over so many years of the guy running head-on into solid things that by the time the hospital found him he was bleeding rust in some vacant lot. (27)
Versus later (Chief not yet cured, but different):
I see it from the inside, me at the bottom. I’m the weight, loading the dice to throw that number one up there above me. They got the dice loaded to throw a snake eyes, and I’m the load, six lumps around me like white pillows is the other side of the dice, the number six that will always be down when he throws. What’s the other dice loaded for? I bet it’s loaded to throw one too. Snake eyes. They’re shooting with crookies against him, and I’m the load. (543)
Note the tense is subtly different. We are closer to the present in the second one and it feels closer. “I bet it’s loaded to throw one too,” is essentially present tense (although not within the larger context of the chapter).
While I can’t use the narrator in the present talking about the past, I can borrow the subtle language differences of someone more in control—not fully in control, but more in control—as the novel progresses.
Something that I am already doing, that Kesey definitely does, is the number of minor characters that are important, from Billy–to the doctor–to even the minor characters such as the orderlies. All have a personality. All shape the narrative and the evolution of both McMurphy and the Chief. Kesey definitely illustrates that one can have two full blown protagonists in one novel: both have their arc and both satisfy the contract with the reader and the arc of one defines the arc of the other. McMurphy has to die, but it has to be the Chief who kills him and we feel that the Chief did the right thing. The point of two protagonists is important when I examine Imperfect Birds later, where Lamott approaches this differently.
The following example shows us the power of an extremely minor character:
The nurse—about as big as the small end of nothing whittled to a fine point, as McMurphy put it later—undid our cuffs and gave McMurphy a cigarette and gave me a stick of gum. She said she remembered that I chewed gum. I didn’t remember her at all. McMurphy smoked while she dipped her little hand full of pink birthday candles into a jar of salve and worked over his cuts, flinching every time he flinched and telling him she was sorry. She picked up one of his hands in both of hers and turned it over and salved his knuckles. “Who was it?” she asked, looking at the knuckles. “Was it Washington or Warren?” (526)
The unnamed nurse is never seen again, yet here we see compassion. We see that not everyone in the hospital is the same. We also see that people in the hospital do know who does what, who the trouble makers are on the staff, and that she even remembers the Chief more than the Chief remembers her.
Kesey’s writing is rich with metaphors and similes that are simple. If someone else attempted to use them, they might feel cliché, but in Kesey’s hands they feel more like the larger than life presence of McMurphy.
I remember real clear the way that hand looked: there was carbon under the fingernails where he’d worked once in a garage; there was an anchor tattooed back from the knuckles; there was a dirty Band-Aid on the middle knuckle, peeling up at the edge. All the rest of the knuckles were covered with scars and cuts, old and new. I remember the palm was smooth and hard as bone from hefting the wooden handles of axes and hoes, not the hand you’d think could deal cards. The palm was callused, and the calluses were cracked, and dirt was worked in the cracks. A road map of his travels up and down the West. That palm made a scuffing sound against my hand. I remember the fingers were thick and strong closing over mine, and my hand commenced to feel peculiar and went to swelling up out there on my stick of an arm, like he was transmitting his own blood into it. It rang with blood and power: It blowed up near as big as his, I remember…(48)
The “road map of his travels” could be cliché, but it is not with the history behind those words. We also have, right here, the entire story arc to come. McMurphy is transmitting his power into the Chief. He gets big again. Powerful. As he will later in the book. And implied is the movement of the power. McMurphy will become weaker. Kesey uses the repetition of words here too, “I remember,” and the hand over and over. We also now know that McMurphy, even if he is lazy and drunk and plays games is not always that way. He works hard and plays hard.
This paragraph also illustrates something that I often argue with my critique group with. They are a group of writers that focus on popular fiction. Most of them argue vehemently on language and knowledge that the POV person uses and can have. Of course the Chief could not “know” that McMurphy worked in a garage, or what implements he used. But, he knows, in his heart. Even a first person narrative can pull lightly to the omniscient. I have, in the past, avoided this, but when done correctly, it makes the book something that a movie can never reproduce.
The Chief has a certain wisdom and sophistication that, again, some might argue a man of his education and upbringing would not have. But, we accept it and if the language is not too flowery and sophisticated–even if the thought is–we feel it appropriate:
…he knew you can’t really be strong until you can see a funny side to things
While McMurphy laughs. Rocking farther and farther backward against the cabin top, spreading his laugh out across the water—laughing at the girl, at the guys, at George, at me sucking my bleeding thumb, at the captain back at the pier and the bicycle rider and the service-station guys and the five thousand houses and the Big Nurse and all of it. Because he knows you have to laugh at the things that hurt you just to keep yourself in balance, just to keep the world from running you plumb crazy. He knows there’s a painful side; he knows my thumb smarts and his girl friend has a bruised breast and the doctor is losing his glasses, but he won’t let the pain blot out the humor no more’n he’ll let the humor blot out the pain. (476)
Note the verb tense again. It is “he knows,” not “he knew.” This has many implications, one is that to the Chief, McMurphy is always alive, the other is we are approaching the end of the book and the text becomes more immediate and more in the present.
Kesey uses a number of tried and true techniques worth mentioning and emulating in my current work. He uses one trauma to allow for a flashback of sorts, such as the shock “therapy” that both McMurphy and the Chief go through. We get our back story and we get some of what motivates the Chief. We also see, as he comes out of the shock therapy induced dream that he is stronger than ever and more self aware than ever:
I stand, stood up slowly, feeling numb between the shoulders. The white pillows on the floor of the Seclusion Room were soaked from me peeing on them while I was out. I couldn’t remember all of it yet, but I rubbed my eyes with the heels of my hands and tried to clear my head. I worked at it. I’d never worked at coming out of it before
First I had a quick thought to try to stop him, talk him into taking what he’d already won and let her have the last round, but another, bigger thought wiped the first thought away completely. I suddenly realized with a crystal certainty that neither I nor any of the half-score of us could stop him. That Harding’s arguing or my grabbing him from behind, or old Colonel Matterson’s teaching or Scanlon’s griping, or all of us together couldn’t rise up and stop him.
We couldn’t stop him because we were the ones making him do it. It wasn’t the nurse that was forcing him, it was our need that was making him push himself slowly up from sitting, his big hands driving down on the leather chair arms, pushing him up, rising and standing like one of those moving-picture zombies, obeying orders beamed at him from forty masters. It was us that had been making him go on for weeks, keeping him standing long after his feet and legs had given out, weeks of making him wink and grin and laugh and go on with his act long after his humor had been parched dry between two electrodes. (606)
Although the climax of the novel is not fully realized, the arc is. The Chief simply has to prove to us that the arc has stuck, that it is real, that he will figure out how he will act now that he has his own strength.
It is tempting to explore in this response nothing but Cuckoo’s Nest. I keep cutting quotes and shortening this section so as to move on. I am reminded of Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), when I think of Ken Kesey, in the sense that sometimes an author has one truly great book in him, or her, and that book is enough to base a permanent reputation on. This is a great book that captures a time and a situation. The mental institutions of the 1960s were even worse than is painted here, but this paints the picture well. Of course as an old Dead Head myself, it helps that Ken Kesey was a friend of the Warlocks and Hunter S. Thompson and I may have to pull out my bootleg concert from Kesey’s Farm, 1972.
Anne Lamont continues to disappoint me, given her reputation with so many women writers, or budding women writers. I would say they, those budding women writers, could aim higher. In Imperfect Birds, Lamont gives us a story in two POVs, the mother and the daughter. The daughter, seventeen, is spiraling with alcohol and drugs, the mother –a former alcoholic—is struggling with her daughter. Both observe the reactions of the stepfather.
The goal, quite frankly, in reading this was to flesh out my own current piece’s backstory with observations from a woman’s point of view. The observations I make are somewhat negative, but still quite valuable in looking at my own work.
First, in contrast to Kesey’s book, the secondary characters are too one dimensional, maybe two if you stretch. It is not that Lamott does not introduce a fair number of characters that are from an outline perspective interesting and quirky. She does, but they remain outlines; formulaic.
Formulaic is really the operative word. The novel is adequate. It meets all the MFA requirements of good craft writing, if you were to go down a checklist. It is part of what I strive to avoid as I read for craft: avoid creating a checklist. There are good cooks and inspired cooks. If you go to a French cooking school, ten years later you will be a good cook, but it is not guaranteed that you will be great cook, nor an inspired cook. Lamott is a good cook.
I will pretend, for the moment, that when Lamott wrote from the two POVs that the similarity of voice between the two POVs was to reflect the genetic influence of mother over daughter. It may also reflect that the daughter is partially following in her mother’s alcoholic footsteps. If so, it makes for lackluster reading. When two POVs feel only different because one is worrying about getting old and the other is observing that her mother is old, then why bother with two POVs?
I am being harsh, in part because of the respect Lamott garners. I want something new from a respected author.
Early on the reader is hit with lines such as:
You stop pretending life is such fun or makes sense. It’s often messy and cruel and dull, and we do the best we can. It’s unfair, and jerks seem to win. But you fall in love with a few people. Like I love you, Elizabeth. You’re the angel God sent me. (17)
I understand that 80% of fiction is read by women. I understand that probably 95% of Lamott’s fiction is read by women. This still reeks of cliché aimed at an audience. I first wrote this off as being intentionally funny, but there are too many similar lines. That said, Lamott is clever enough to use this line again, a little tongue in cheek, on page 133:
“Our church may start offering members sweat lodge as a spiritual tool—so we’ll have more to offer than talking and worship. I wanted to see what it was like. But mainly, it’s a chance to spend the whole day with Elizabeth.” Rae turned to beam at her. “She’s the angel God sent to me when I was at my lowest.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “I’m not even speaking to you, Rae.”
Thus, even as I am blasting Lamott, I am acknowledging her skill.
I know the response is not to critique the novel, but as usual, I argue craft and the content are intertwined. Allow me a bit more. The experience portrayed here is middle class, or upper educated middle class. The young woman is borderline in trouble, not deep, deep trouble. Certainly the trend of the protagonist portrayed is a bad one, but this is greater San Francisco area teen world. Again, playing to her audience of mothers in this same strata. Lamott also teaches in the greater San Francisco area. Cynic that I am, this seems geared to keeping the writing classroom popular.
OK, the rant is over. There are some interesting lessons to learn from Lamott. Most of her chapters are fairly well contained. They almost make a short story. Almost every chapter uses two POVs in the single chapter, clearly marked with a small icon to tell us a POV shift is occurring. She does not end a chapter simply for dramatic effect, but more to end the thought, the story. I tend to end for dramatic effect and have considered that my own writing tends to keep the chapters too short for this dramatic effect. The two POVs per chapter keeps a semblance of balance, although at times it too seems contrived, it feels balanced. There is a rhythm to it.
Interestingly and serendipitously the issue with Imperfect Birds is passivity. I was expecting to learn about passive characters that are compelling in Cuckoo’s Nest, in Imperfect Birds both protagonists are passive. Additionally, neither ever shakes out of their passivity. It demonstrates, in my mind, several things: One it is more compelling if a passive character is balanced by an active character. The reader may not fully engage with one, but the passive character serves as a foil for the active one. Two, eventually the passive character has to break out of it, in Lamott’s book, she is forced into it (it happens to her), and three, even technically “good” writing falls flat with passive characters, that really don’t do anything. An accidental, but good contrast between Lamott and Kesey.
Lamott is a good observer. A note taker. She is accurate in her knowledge of Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, teen drug habits in the past ten years, teen sex habits—well the increase of oral sex—in the past ten years, the new-new age scene in California. Yet, there is nothing fresh here. No new insight. No new feeling. The lesson learned here is that research is one thing, passion and making the reader feel is another. It all feels a bit like non-fiction. Take a very simple line, which is not terrible, “She’d heard it said at meetings that a functional alcoholic was someone with a spouse who had a good job. (45)” The functional alcoholic is ok, but the “She’d heard it said” makes it feel distant and like a report. Much of the novel is in this style.
Lamott has some good lines, but it is, again, all wrapped in observation. No movement—metaphorically. A longer passage may illustrate this good and bad:
Ten feet away from her, a fine-looking young man stood reading the posters in the glass display case. He was sturdy and tan, looked older than Rosie by a few years, with shoulder-length sun-streaked hair, and wire-rimmed glasses that added an air of studious ballast. He acknowledged her with a faint Buddhist bow and turned back to the posters. He smelled of salt and sea and sun, of sweat and muscles and lovely skin. It was sort of sickening. What did she exude? Atrophy and skin flakes. (45)
I like the “Atrophy and skin flakes.” But, the entire paragraph captures the character of Elizabeth, the mother. She wanders around the same area of town for two hundred pages and observes.
Lamott does something which is interesting, which is summarize dialog that in summary may be longer than the dialog itself would be, but by doing this she keeps a wall between one character and another. I assume this is intentional and I am not sure I like it in the context she does it, but it could be very interesting used in other ways.
She burst back into James’s office. He looked up from his computer. “I’m sorry to interrupt,” she said. “But I’m having an episode. And I’m so lonely.” He got up and said it was really okay, and came to stand beside her, and when she told him about the bad van, he made the simple sounds of comfort, no real human words, gentle moans, like during sex, or as to a child who has banged her knee, with lots of ellipses in between. It was like music, his holding her, and the soft moans; certain chords got struck again, and she held on for dear life, and the song she hadn’t heard in so long resounded, and standing together hanging their heads by his office window, they could hear the same tune again.
Finally, Gang Leader for a Day is non-fiction. But, it is damn interesting. Venkatesh is now a professor, but this is capturing some of his post-doctoral days.
First, what is important in fiction as it is non-fiction is Venkatesh establishes early on that these “bad guys” are people. They are not pure evil. Part of how he establishes this is by using his own honesty and prejudices to frame the response to information, allowing the reader to sigh with relief and say “yeah, I was thinking that too.” For instance the gang leader J.T. has Venkatesh cornered and is questioning him, while all the members around are calling to beat him up.
Then he asked what I hoped to gain by studying young black people. I ticked off a few of the pressing questions that sociologists were asking about urban poverty.
“I had a few sociology classes,” he said. “In college. Hated that shit.”
The last word I expected to exit this man’s mouth was “college.” But there it was. I didn’t want to push my luck, so I thought I’d just keep listening and hope for a chance to ask about his background. (19)
In some sense, Venkatesh, and my recollection of Ellison’s book, which was based on research for a novel, illustrates something about craft that is not discussed too often, or certainly in much detail: research sometimes gives you material you can’t make up on your own. The following interplay is great:
He took the questionnaire from my hand, barely glanced at it, then handed it back. Everything he did, every move he made, was deliberate and forceful.
I read him the same question that I had read the others. He didn’t laugh, but he smiled. How does it feel to be black and poor?
“I’m not black,” he answered, looking around at the others knowingly.
“Well, then, how does it feel to be African American and poor?” I tried to sound apologetic, worried that I had offended him.
“I’m not African American either. I’m a nigger.”
Now I didn’t know what to say. I certainly didn’t feel comfortable asking him how it felt to be a nigger. He took back my questionnaire and looked it over more carefully. He turned the pages, reading the questions to himself. He appeared disappointed, though I sensed that his disappointment wasn’t aimed at me.
“Niggers are the ones who live in this building,” he said at last. “African Americans live in the suburbs. African Americans wear ties to work. Niggers can’t find no work.” (16)
This is J.T. (who a few pages later we found out has some college experience). The point is, even though J.T. is part of a gang that we know deals in drugs and violence, we see he is very three dimensional.
Later we also get a three dimensional view of a prostitute, which adds again to our picture of J.T.
What’s the difference, I asked her, between a “hype” and a “regular”?
“Regulars like me, we hustle to make our money, but we only go with guys we know. We don’t do it full-time, but if we have to feed our kids, we may make a little money on the side. I got two kids I need to feed, and my man don’t always help out. Then you got hypes that are just in it for the drugs. They don’t live around here, but J.T. lets them work here, and they give him a cut. I don’t hang around with them. They’re the ones that cause trouble. Some of them have pimps, some of them work for the gang, but they’re all in it for the drugs. Clarisse don’t mess with drugs. And that’s why a lot of people accept us—even if they say things behind our back. They know we’re only trying to take care of our families, just like them.”
“Are you working now?” I said.
“Baby, I’m always working if the price is right!” She laughed. “But J.T. probably don’t want me working tonight, so I won’t be hustling.”
This confused me, since J.T. had specifically told me that his gang didn’t run a prostitution racket. Most gangs didn’t, he explained, since there wasn’t much money to be made. Prostitutes were hard to manage and required a great deal of attention: They were constantly getting beat up and arrested, which meant long periods without income. They needed to be fed and clothed, and the ones who used drugs were notoriously unpredictable. They were also prone to stealing money.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “You mean J.T. controls you?”
“No, but he told me once that if I wanted to hang out with his family, I had to play by his rules: no hustling when there’s a family thing going on. Like tonight. And he runs things around here, so I have to play by the rules.”
Even though J.T.’s gang didn’t actually control the prostitutes in his buildings, Clarisse explained that he did extract a monthly fee from both the hypes and the regulars. The regulars usually paid a flat fee (anywhere from fifteen to seventy-five dollars a month), and in return the gang would beat up any johns who abused the women. The hypes, meanwhile, turned over a cut of their income (ranging from 10 to 25 percent) to J.T.’s foot soldiers, who tried to keep track of how many tricks each woman turned. Clarisse said that J.T. was actually one of the nicer gang leaders on the South Side. He regularly lent money to women, helped them get medical care, even kept a few vacant apartments for them to use as brothels. So although J.T. didn’t technically run a prostitution ring, he certainly controlled the flow of prostitution on his turf and profited from it. (57)
The dialogue of the interviewee is natural. It is bracketed by his thinking, which in fiction or non-fiction is often useful to break up dialogue. He makes himself rather stilted, which is probably intentional and gives a nice “babe in the woods” feel to it.
Just like a good novel, we are not given the really dark side of J.T. until later. By page 67, he beats up a local old man who won’t move his car out of the street for a basketball game the gang has planned. Venkatesh’s reaction and angst he feels is real, as is his draw toward the fact that he was getting a view that was definitely not normal for sociologists. He stops talking to friends and family about his research, but continues it. What I am getting at is not just the insights to gangs, but his honesty of his own behavior and emotions. I am sure he varnished some pieces, but in writing we want to see the good guy make mistakes and be drawn toward the dark side. Another beating, a few weeks later:
Then he began flailing about on the ground in convulsion, his spindly arms flapping like wings. By now his body lay just a few feet from us. I groaned, and J .T. pulled me away. Still no one came to help Brass; it was as if we were all fishermen watching a fish die a slow death on the floor of a boat.
I leaned on J.T.’s car, quivering from the shock. He took hold of me firmly and tried to calm me down. “It’s just the way it is around here,” he whispered, a discernible tone of sympathy in his voice. “Sometimes you have to beat a nigger to teach him a lesson. Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it after a while.”
I thought, No, I don’t want to get used to it. If I did, what kind of person would that make me? I wanted to ask J.T. to stop the beating and take Brass to the hospital, but my ears were ringing, and I couldn’t even focus on what he was telling me. My eyes were fixed on Brass, and I felt like throwing up. (71)
Perhaps what Venkatesh’s writing, fiction or not, is similar to Kesey’s. Powerful stuff draws you. Don’t whitewash it too much. Don’t middle class it. Don’t Imperfect Birds it.
There is much that I will use for my own piece in Gang Leader for a Day. Most of this falls out of the general craft analysis and into the realm of supplemental research; backup. After all, “I don’t care if you’re selling socks or selling your ass. You need someone to back you up. (88).
Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. New York. Penguin. 1963. Kindle Edition exported to ePub and read on Calibre Reader.
Lamott, Anne. Imperfect Birds. New York. Riverhead Books. 2010. ePub read on Nook reader software.
Venkatesh, Sudhir. Gang Leader for a Day. New York. Penguin. 2008. Print.
Note on e-book citation.
There is still no accepted standard for ebook citation by the MLA. However, the ePub format has consistent pagination, no matter what font size is used, within a given reader. Thus, the page numbers are consistent for anyone using the same device-software. I note the device in the citation. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has quotes taken from a Calibre Reader, which inflates the number of pages over what, for instance a Nook Reader would give.