Monday, 17 March 2014

Sometimes A Great Notion by Ken Kesey

This book took me quite a while to get into, but once I did, I liked it a lot.

You know how George R.R. Martin changes narrative voices between chapters? Well, this book does that, but within paragraphs. In the first hundred pages, there were a few paragraphs that had, internally, four different perspectives. And I thought, what have I gotten myself into? Is this pretentious? Is it precious?

And more to the point, can I put up with this for 700 pages?

But I stuck it out, and once I got into the rhythm of the book, it really worked for me. (It also helped that paragraphs rarely had four narrators. Two, however, was very common. But sometimes it switched between narrators and first- and third-person.)

This is a book for the patient.

But my patience was rewarded, once I got used to the style, and once I slowed down enough to read this book at its own pace, which it definitely demands. And it frequently reads like it was written while on drugs of one sort or another.

So much for the style, what about the story?

Now that, that was good. (And a lot better than One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which I was not that fond of.) It's an almost operatic tragedy, set amongst the hardest-living, toughest sumbitches out there. It's about rugged individualism, but not in a simple way. It's about community, but not in an easy way. The rugged individuals are often rugged because they've been given no choice, from upbringing and exclusion. Those in the community often prey on others. The rugged individuals have a pretty tight-knit and roughly affectionate community of their own going.

And it's a story of revenge. Younger son Leland comes home to an Oregon logging community locked in a bitter strike. He comes back to topple his big brother off the pedestal he himself put Hank on. And does it using the powers of weakness he's been honing all his life. Big brother Hank never particularly wanted to be this strong, but feels like he's been forced into it.

Leland gave me the most trouble of all the characters in the book. He's an asshole. He constantly assumes malicious intent on the part of his big brother when none exists. He creates his own little drama going on within in the family which no one else can perceive. And because of the evil den of hate and malice he sees going on around him, he sets out to make it true.

With tragic results.

I can't recommend this book to everyone. You have to have a high tolerance for ambiguity, for a non-linear writing style, for a story that flows like the river it takes place beside.

But if this is you, then I think you might enjoy this book too.

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