The women are the river, the meandering, silent river, the quiet riffles near the bank, where a severed arm raises a finger to the sky. The men are everything else – protagonists, loggers, action, jobs, bluster, egos, wind, and rain slanting down from low, gray skies. Yet: you must always keep your eye on the water, for the river, she rises.
Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion is a quintessential Northwest book, the book should be required reading if you’re going to move to the Oregon coast – and perhaps, with any luck, it’ll persuade you not to move. Coastal people can be mean after all – they never give an inch, they don’t want unions, they want what they want when they want it. Every longtime local is a Stamper. My actual-life neighbors are the trucking version of the Stamper family, complete with women dying by their own hand and a lineage of infighting sons and pregnant women. If we only lived next to a river, those poor young girls could get something done.
I don’t think many critics would argue Kesey was a feminist, and in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, his portrayal of Nurse Ratched made me think he surely was a misogynist. (I’m not alone in that thought; see, “Fixing Men: Castration, Impotence, and Masculinity in Ken Kesey’s ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’” Journal of Men’s Studies, 2009, where critic Michael Meloy argues the novel is representative of a post WWII’s “fundamental terror of perceived feminization.”) When an interviewer once asked Kesey “What do you see as evil in the world and how do you depict it?” Kesey replied, “In my novels and stories, evil is always the thing that seems to control.” In Cuckoo’s Nest, evil is what the narrator of the novel calls the Combine – mechanistic, systematically-oppressive society – and Nurse Ratched is its minion, seen by both reader and characters as an evil woman.
Notion, however, is a more complicated novel than Cuckoo’s Nest. The story, long and twisted, is told in a highly original, brilliant structure, which can’t be called flashbacks, exactly, but perhaps more accurately could be called backsloughs, with parenthetical and italicized passages revealing the deep conflicts that carry the novel forward. The main action – the Stampers won’t unionize and they’re going to deliver their logs downstream, community be damned – is not quite interesting enough to carry the novel forward (which is why the movie version of Notion failed; it threw out the deep undercurrents. Never throw out the women, see?). These narrative backsloughs are where the women are, hiding in the reeds: “hallowed out with loneliness,” dark, and unhappy, but these women affect the men, deep in their psyches. The women have power, like the river has power; they are the current on which the narrative rides.
Kesey knew the real conflict in the Notion is with the river. In that Paris Review interview, Kesey says evil in Notion is “the symbol of the river, eating away, leveling, trying to make that town the same…The river is the controlling force the family is battling….Mother Nature throws off the forces that try to control her.”
It’s that feminized power, not wanting to be controlled, that undercuts the bank, dirt clod by dirt clod. When young Hank wanted to keep bobcat kittens as pets, the river calves off the bank and the kittens fall into the river and drown. And later, Hank and Lee match “wills and egos” over Vivian, holder of Stamper men’s scrapbook history and the one who leaves that history behind. Vivian, and Myra before her, and even the paragraph describing Hank’s biological mother who “got up one morning, did a washing, and died,” are the same as the river, throwing off the Stamper men who try to control them.
Some readers might see a negation of women in Sometimes a Great Notion. I say the women are not victims, but the agents of their own power, even if they die suddenly or by jumping off a building. They make their choices and the whole Stamper legacy balances on a precarious brink because of them. By the time Vivian leaves the Wakonda Auga valley, she’s headed for what Kesey calls a “dark future,” but one in which she is not being controlled. Even Kesey concedes how women affected him: “Old feminism, women’s lib, had something to do with [Vivian’s choice to leave], but I didn’t know it at the time.”
Like I said, she’s rising.