Thursday, July 29, 2010
Ken Kesey: Sometimes a Great Notion (1964)
Ken Kesey’s second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, remains a baffling work that seems deliberately constructed to frustrate efforts to pin down the author. The novel’s bulk, experimentation with perspective, and Faulknerian historical details demonstrate that Kesey wanted to follow up One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with a work that would seal his reputation as a major author, but his life in many ways had already moved well beyond the limits of literature. After incubating the counter culture at his house in La Honda, Kesey wheeled it out for all of the nation to see in 1964 when he and the Merry Pranksters took a bus trip to New York (with no less than Neal Cassady as the driver) in order to visit the World’s Fair and to be present for the publication of Sometimes a Great Notion. The novel received quite mixed reviews, but the drugged-out, moving multimedia spectacle of the Merry Pranksters’ bus, famously described in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, had perhaps already supplanted literature for Kesey, who wouldn’t publish another novel for over twenty years. The reception of the novel should not have surprised Kesey, who seems to have constructed its plot as a calculated affront. The narrative takes the side of a family of loggers, the Stampers, who fight against a union strike by gathering together their non-union kin to carry out the labor themselves. By turning the union into the enemy, Sometimes a Great Notion reverses the stance of the radical literature of the 1930s. Kesey acknowledges this historical contrast through the local union representative, Floyd Evenwrite, who remembers his father’s leadership role in the Wobblies. Kesey also reveals his cards when he has one Stamper son imagine saying, “My father is a filthy capitalist and my brother is a motherfucker.” There may be some hints here of the New Left’s dismissal of the iconography of the Old Left (SDS chose its name partially to distance itself from stereotypes about unions and the working class), but a more probable influence is the strong libertarianism underlying much of the counter culture. For much of the 1960s, libertarian hostility toward government intervention and emphasis on individual rights (which could mean everything from the right to control one’s private property to the right to take LSD) were able to find an uneasy place within the left, though the libertarians would move increasingly right in later decades. Kesey’s novel renders each of the Stampers as a super-human personality, for whom it would be unnatural and perhaps impossible to conform to the demands of a union or the local community. For example, when the old Stamper patriarch loses his arm in a logging accident, one of his sons attaches the severed limb to the top of their house with its middle finger out so that it can continuously flip off the community across the river. But the conflict in the novel stems less from the Stampers’ indifference to the economic hardships they cause others than from the friction between personalities within the family. Bookish college student Leland Stamper returns to help the family in its anti-union scabbing so that he can take his revenge on his older half-brother, Hank Stamper, whose godlike strength and force of presence robbed Leland of his manhood when he was just a boy. Kesey’s long descriptions of Oregon’s wet forest river environment, which threatens to wash away all traces of humanity at any moment, helps elevate this family drama to the level of myth, though, as Tom Wolfe points out, that mythology seems to draw less from ancient Greece than from comic books. Through the novel’s wandering first person narration, which jumps from character to character without announcement, each member of the Stamper family comments on the personalities of the others. An intellectual who has been living with his mother on the East Coast, Leland easily perceives and criticizes his half-brother’s obstinate and brutish masculinity as he plots to sleep with his wife and ruin his business. But despite such passages and others that satirize the Stamper men, the novel ultimately revolves around masculine bonding. Kesey’s first novel originally was to be about collegiate sports, and in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest McMurphy breaks his fellow inmates out of the asylum so they can go on a fishing trip. In Sometimes a Great Notion, the two brothers ignore family tragedy, community interests, and, in the end, the love of women as they carry out their eternal – and perhaps loving - struggle with each other, riding off on a pile of logs detached from the rest of the modern world.