Home > Book Reviews > Two Book Reviews – Catch-22 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Two Book Reviews – Catch-22 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

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I was a strange youth and a precocious reader – I read both of these famous novels of the sixties in my early teens, and I remember being especially enamoured with Heller’s novel. That was twenty years ago. Recently I picked up new editions of both novels (not the editions pictured above) and decided to see what I thought of these modern classics now. 

Published within a year of each other (Catch-22 in 1961 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1962), both became enormously successful and spawned film versions (neither of which I’ve seen). In many ways the novels share a common theme: the irrational, depersonalising and often murderous nature of modern society. In Catch-22, in marked contrast to most WWII novels, the enemy is not the Germans but the foolish and vainglorious Colonels and the bloated bureaucracy they represent. In Cuckoo, the enemy is what Chief Bromden calls the ‘Combine’, a faceless economic and political system hellbent on creating uniformity and obedience in its citizenry. Both novels feature larger than life, ultra masculine protagonists in Yossarian and McMurphy who buck the system at every opportunity.

Neither novels have anything progressive to say in terms of their gender politics, sadly. Published well before Second Wave feminism got underway, both feature crude portraits of women. The nurses and whores in Catch-22 are the only women to be found and all are described almost exclusively in terms of their physical dimensions and sexual exploits. There’s a particularly odious scene featuring a sexual assault on Nurse Duckett by Yossarian and one of his colleagues which is played for laughs, except that I wasn’t laughing. Such a scene would be unpublishable in a new novel today. Cuckoo isn’t much better in this regard. The main antagonist, Nurse Ratched, is characterised as  a castrating bitch who ironically has enormous breasts (McMurphy takes great pleasure in exposing these to the world in one late scene). Cuckoo‘s depiction of race relations leaves a lot to be desired, too. The black characters are almost uniformly malevolent, violent, twisted individuals who like nothing more than to sink their boots into defenseless white men.

These caveats aside, both novels feature memorable characters and situations that live long in the memory. McMurphy is the archetypal trickster bad boy and Chief Bromden, who pretends to be a deaf mute for more than twenty years, is a singular creation. Catch-22 is extremely strong in terms of characterisation all round and no one who reads the book will ever forget the outlandish, carnal and craven Yossarian. Both novels contain scenes of tremendous emotional power and others of uproarious humour. Heller’s mental gymnastics is at times the work of real genius (see the chapter ‘Major Major Major Major’) and his description of Snowden’s death is one of the saddest passages in all of modern fiction. In Cuckoo, the farcical party-to-end-all-mental-ward-parties prefigures the poignancy of McMurphy and Billy Bibbit’s demise.

Both novels have pacing issues: Catch-22 is too long and at times too repetitive; Cuckoo moves too slowly to begin with before galloping to its finish in the final 30 pages. But no matter. They are deserving of their stature as modern classics, albeit classics not without their respective flaws. As for their authors, while not quite one hit wonders, neither Heller nor Kesey would ever equal their stellar literary debuts. Both would write other books and enjoy long literary careers, but both would ultimately be known for their anti-establishment manifestos, Catch-22 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. 

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