On Reading Sometimes a Great Notion
by Brendan Strong
I’m reading Sometimes a Great Notion again. This is a (huge) book by Ken Kesey (perhaps better known for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; or the infamous acid tests). I read it first in college; it was hard work.
The story itself is a huge cycle, centring on a town called Wakonda in the Pacific Northwest of America. The town’s income is almost exclusively derived from lumber and logging. The union, comprising almost everyone in the town (except the extended Stamper family) go on strike for better pay and terms from the lumber mill. The Stampers (who aren’t on strike) are the hard-headed centre of the story. They not only continue to work, but extend their contract, promising to deliver the lumber that the striking workers would have provided. Were this not enough animosity to drive a storyline, Kesey also adds a dose of intra-family animosity, centred primarily on Hank and Leland, two brothers from different mothers. While Hank lives and works in Wakonda, taking on the family business from his father, Leland lives back East. He comes out to Wakonda, ostensibly to help the family meet their contractual obligations with the lumber mill; but also to wreak some kind of revenge on his brother for injuries from the past.
The hard-headed approach of the Stampers is beautifully crystalised in an early moment:
Kesey winds through the story of how the first Stampers came to move to Wakonda. Jonas, a religious man who worries about his family’s “curse” of always pushing further west moves out to Wakonda with his young family. He soon moves back to Kansas – he simply can’t hack it. Everything he tries to cultivate over-grows with weeds – all his attempts at controlling nature fail. He returns to Kansas, taking with him most of the money the family have. His son, Henry, takes over the running of the family and the business. Some time later, Henry has a child, Hank, who becomes one of the central figures of the story. Henry’s father sends a religious plaque for the baby with an inscription reading “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”. Henry takes the plaque and paints “NEVER GIVE A INCH!” [Edited: See second commenter below] over the inscription in yellow machine paint. The humour here (the meek, who moved back to Kansas, is still convinced the meek shall inherit the earth) is also shot through the whole book – although, I’ll confess, sometimes it’s hard to pick up on, because the narrative is pretty dense.
The narrative style makes the book both engaging and enraging. Kesey stitches each chapter together with threads of narrative from different characters’ viewpoints. At first disorienting, the approach becomes really engrossing once you can get your concentration into gear. The voices start to spread into your own mind, much like the natural environment in the story, growing over all the attempts humans have made to cultivate and control it.
I often think of the writing styles of American literature in terms of spreading – from the long lines Walt Whitman used in his Leaves of Grass right up to Jack Kerouac’s manic, seemingly uncontrollable prose (I don’t mean to ignore the minimal, and shorter forms – such as Carver, William Carlos Williams, etc; just in this context, I’m coming from this style). The prose ‘spreads’ or reaches out, reflecting a discovery of the land and landscape and people. This works really well for their narrative, as almost all their heroes have real adventures; overcoming great difficulty thanks to their own ingenuity, hope and physicality. Of course, all these ideas are played with – so you can point out nearly any book where none of these things all fall together – but the point is they play off this idea of going off to find a fortune or a good living, and the discovery and attempt to master nature.
In Sometimes a Great Notion, Kesey’s characters are already at the edge – there is not much further for them to spread. On one side is the Pacific Ocean; on the other, land that has already been discovered, conquered and mastered; which of course is no good to them. Where they are just keeps growing. This works well for the lumber men, because there are trees to fell and product to sell. For others, coming from out-of-state, it’s almost horrific. Those from Wakonda live a tough life in constant struggle; those from elsewhere are infected by the romanticism of this savage landscape, but soon withered by it.
This modernisation of the dream is reflected by the narrative style. The threaded voices, each telling their own story with their own motivations are like channels swirling in water. Like water, the narrative gets deeper and deeper – you don’t realise until the end that you are introduced to much of the story in the first 50 pages. Rather than reaching outward, Kesey brings us down further, exploring the relationships between all these people that are on edge in so many ways.
Within this framework, Kesey deals with a huge number of themes, which all ripple outward (yes more water) – for example, antagonisms between man and nature blend into antagonisms between authority and submission blend into antagonisms between community and individuals blend into antagonisms between family members. There is a major East vs West(ern United States) theme that ripples into civilisation vs savagery, touches on family, the idea of playing it safe and striking out on your own, and so forth. This is the easiest way to describe it, but I’ve described it poorly – the book is not simply a series of dualities set up to duke it out. While there are many opposites fighting for control, the swirl of narrative really adds something very rich to the whole experience (and it feels like an experience – not a simply activity of reading a book).
All of this adds up to many unresolved contradictions and paradoxes and (god save us!) human hypocrisies. When I say unresolved – I don’t mean storylines are unresolved – I mean that he reflects some of those questions about our life that are unresolved; and he does it in a pretty robust way. You stick with it because the characters are so human, and the prose so beautiful.
It really is a tough book, with timelines and ideas all jumbled together. Great concentration and – frankly – discipline is required to complete it, but when you do (and you actually don’t) – it is well worth the toil.