During the academic year of 1987-1988, Ken Kesey taught a graduate-level creative writing class of thirteen students at the University of Oregon. He charged the group with producing a full-length novel in one school year, which they did, publishing Caverns under the name O.U. Levon (Novel University of Oregon backwards) in 1990.
It is my intent to interview each living author about the project and what they learned from Kesey. I outline the project in more detail in my initial posting. Here is list of all living authors and links to to past interviews:
Lynn Jeffress’s interview is the ninth I’ve published. Lynn wrote about her Caverns experience in a 2004 Northwest Review essay (included below). She had the following additional thoughts about her experience writing with Kesey:
Why did I write this essay? Well, it seemed clear to me that the group writing course was much more than simply an ego hit for an eccentric writer and performance artist. Kesey’s experiment was getting at something bigger. He was trying for a way to counter the classic novel written by a single individual in isolation, no longer expressing the soul of a country, only decadent individuality, becoming simply, to paraphrase Norman Mailer, an advertisement for itself, a long, dying cry of grief.
Kesey wanted to say “Bullshit!” to the decadence, but he also wanted to move novels off the dime. In this, the medium was indeed the message. He was looking at com-munal art as a means to turn writing in a new direction, almost a tribal one.
For me, the group novel course echoed Diego Rivera and the Mexican Muralist Movement, where artists and assistants worked together. FDR was persuaded to copy the idea and created the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) during the Depression. San Francisco’s Coit Tower is painted with PWAP murals as well as one by Diego Rivera.
If the medium is the message, then ultimately what mattered were our feelings as participants in the process of Kesey’s group art project; and those feelings became what was created in the class. We were the art. Art was the process, as it must have very much been for the muralists. Kesey was saying that Art could be redefined, it could be moved off the dime, it could get its soul back.
Caverns: A New Form of Menippean Satire (Or How the Carnival of Caverns Was Also the Carnival of Our Lives as Writers With Ken Kesey)
Northwest Review, Vol. 42, #2, 2004.
Caverns, a group novel, was the result of nine months spent writing collective fiction with Ken Kesey at the University of Oregon, beginning in the fall of 1987. As a second year graduate student in the University’s MFA program (Creative Writing), I was eligible to take the class which Kesey had proposed to the English Department sometime earlier. Ultimately, thirteen of us gathered weekly, Mondays and Fridays, for three terms, at Kesey’s campus house on Hilyard Street in Eugene. During that year, we conceived, wrote, and edited a 317 page novel published by Viking Penguin in 1990 — fulfilling a promise made to us by Kesey at the start of that year: We could and would do it, he said.
This particular writing process and outcome was the first of its kind in the United States, up to that time (the Internet has since made collective writing projects a new and very accessible genre). Other collective works had been written, poetry and prose (most notably the 1969 spoof Naked Came the Stranger), but they generally involved the assembling of discrete works by individual authors joined together around a collective theme or plot. Kesey, on the other hand, actually devised a way to amalgamate all our voices, including his, into a single narrative, at the same time allowing us each to do our own work. In other words, we did not simply feed Kesey prose that he then made his own; the whole plot was mixed and something new evolved.
After trial and error (elaborated upon in our forthcoming group memoir about that unusual year, Writing Under the Influence) we settled on a process of composing in class, around a group table, for 30 minutes at a time. Each week we invented a different chapter and chose a weekly editor from the group. This editor divided the chapter into 14 sections. We then pulled our individual sections (written on slips of paper) out of Kesey’s top hat, wrote spontaneously until a timer sounded, read our work aloud into a tape recorder, and had all the pieces typed up by Barbara Platz, a friend of Kesey’s. The group editor then took the 14 sections home and did a first edit. This process continued throughout winter term. In the spring of 1988, we undertook a final re-write, with Kesey carefully overseeing the process. We were all encouraged to stop by the campus house, day or night, to help with the editing.
What evolved was not just a group novel; it was, I believe, a significant part of Kesey’s oeuvre in the sense that Caverns, and the method used to create it, is the culmination of a process begun early in Kesey’s career with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion. In these novels, a foundation is laid which establishes the two major aspects of Kesey’s art and life: his use of “carnival” to destabilize an official worldview and his interest in the polyphonic novel as a means to create community through close spatial juxtapositions, a format opposed ultimately to the western notion of the ego in linear time.
Mikhail Bahhtin, the Russian critic who first developed a major theory around the idea of literary carnivalization in his study of Dostoyevsky’s work, Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics, writes that literary carnival was initially associated with a very early form of literature known as Menippean Satire. Kesey’s work, I feel, is a part of Menippean tradition, ultimately manifested in his orchestration of Caverns. And although there is no evidence that Kesey studied Bakhtin’s theories, given his own carnival sense of the world, Kesey would have felt at home with Bakhtin’s work.
Bakhtin states that “Carnivalization penetrates to the very philosophical core of Menippea” (134). Briefly, it is helpful to know that the word Menippea comes from Menippus of Gadara, a man who did not invent the genre, but who fashioned it into its classical form. Born a slave in the year 3 b.c.e., he became a pupil of the Cynic Metrocles. After purchasing his freedom, he settled in Thebes and proceeded to satirize all formal schools of philosophy and all philosophical elites. Any form that pretended to be a vehicle for learned discourse — the treatise, the cosmography, the epistle, the symposium, the dialogue — were all targets for his ridicule. He wrote thirteen works in all but only a list of those works and a few fragments survive.
Menippean Satire reached its high point in the Renaissance, although literary aspects of the form became traditionalized and are found in the works of writers like Cervantes, Voltaire, Diderot, Hoffman, Poe, Cyrano de Bergerac, Balzac, Hugo, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, and, I would suggest, Kesey.
The main aspects of this genre, besides carnivalization, include: 1) its dialogic nature, because it was influenced by the Socratic dialogue; 2) its pronounced comic element; 3) elements of the fantastic, as a means to provoke and test a truth; 4) the picaresque; 5) slum naturalism; 6) scandals and eccentric behavior; 7) oxymoronic combinations; and 8) a journalistic interest in current and topical issues (Bakhtin 114-119).
All these elements are freely evident in Caverns — not of course that any of us knew the ultimate direction of the book at the time we wrote the novel — but with hindsight, it’s not hard to see what we created; we were living and writing the carnival life and, in this particular case, creating satire.
Since Bakhtin covers in depth the notion of the carnivalesque in his book about Dostoyevsky, I will use this work as a background for my argument, but I will not be commenting on Bakhtin’s theories as such, nor judging their merits –rather, I am interested in the categories he lays out, as a means of understanding Caverns as carnivalized literature, as well as the notion of polyphonic narrative.
Carvinvalization is defined by Bakhtin as the transposition of carnival images into the language of literature:
Carnival has worked out an entire language of symbolic concretely sensuous forms — from large and complex mass actions to individual carnivalistic gestures…This language cannot be translated in any full or adequate way into a verbal language, and much less into a language of abstract concepts, but it is amenable to a certain transposition into a language of artistic images that has something in common with its concretely sensuous nature; that is, it an be transposed into the language of literature (122).
One of the most “carnivalistic gestures” in literature is the picaresque journey. Add to this, as happens in Caverns, that it is a group journey whose members were or are part of a carnival. Charles Loach, the hero of Caverns, is a former carny and a recent prison inmate. Bakhtin notes that convicts, as well as gamblers, are carnivalized figures, their lives being “life taken out of life” (172). Loach claims to know where an ancient cave exists on whose walls are written the secrets of the universe. He is let out of prison after six years (having been sentenced to 20 for murder) in order to find the cave and hand over its secrets to the media and to science. If he can do this, he will be set free for good. The plot is as fantastic as Raiders of the Lost Ark (a very carnivalesque film). An opening paragraph describes Loach’s “theosophy temple” on the outskirts of Chinatown in San Francisco:
A small stained-glass window is set in the metal door, no bigger than a porthole. Its faceted pattern describes the looping cross of an Egyptian ankh, and a shaft of morning sunlight has poked its way through the hanging fog and into the beveled glass of the symbol’s center. The shaft zigzags down carpeted steps to a room located below the house, a subterranean hall — vast and still. (Caverns 3)
Loach brings together an eccentric group of characters for his cave-hunting expedition, three of whom worked with him previously in the circus: Loach’s brother Dogeye, a curiosity who lives alone in the Utah desert and has built The Museum of Natural Curiosities; Gaby, daughter of Lidia the Lightening Lady; and Juke (short for human jukebox), who was mustard gassed in WWI and now has blue skin. Also on board the bus are the two Makai sisters, Mona and Romona, given to astrological babbling; their nephew, Rodney, and alcoholic Hollywood producer; Father Paul, the poker playing priest who is losing his vocation, piece by piece (so to speak); Chick Ferrel a reporter and sober alcoholic who has one last chance to make good; Jocelyn Caine, an intrepid cave-phobic anthropologist; and Boyle, a redneck jack-Mormon. These characters join up on the bus, a World War I CC Rider, a casualty carrier. They all head north and discover one morning that Loach and his brother have blacked out the windows so none of the passengers will know where the cave is. Much of the novel takes place on this bus, the close quarters precipitating the plot.
Bakhtin explains in what way closeness of this kind, carnival closeness, is liberating.
Carnival is past millennia’s way of sensing the world as one great communal performance. This sense of the world, liberating one from fear, bring the world maximally close to another (everything is drawn into the zone of free familiar contact), with its joy at change and its joyful relativity, is opposed to that one-sided and gloomy official seriousness which is dogmatic and hostile to evolution and change, which seeks to absolutize a given condition of existence or a given social order. From precisely that sort of seriousness did the carnival sense of the world liberate a man (160).
In other words, carnivalization creates a kind of tribal existence; it liberates a community of revelers by making “the world maximally close to a person and bringing one person maximally close to another.” It seems probably that it was this kind of thing Kesey was aiming for when he conceived of a group novel class. Thirteen of us, plus Kesey, came together, “checked our egos at the door,” and developed, over the course of months , a communal psyche that gave voice, through art, to a communal spirit. We became a tribe. We were carnivalized.
The novel was, I believe, almost a by-product of Kesey’s real interest. The overriding work of art for him was the class itself, which, by its “polyphonic” nature, mocked the seriousness of normal and seemly creative writing classes, those which often foster individual writing egos. Kesey’s group novel class stripped each of us of our egos and forced us into the carnival of community. And from this collision and quarrel, a Socratic notion (Bakhtin 110), a single-voiced work of carnivalized fiction was created.
In orchestrating Caverns, Kesey moved beyond what Bakhtin characterizes as the polyphonic novel invented by Dostoyevsky (7) and which Kesey developed in Sometimes a Great Notion. Polyphony is as important an aspect of Mineppea as carnivalization, and Bakhtin, in writing about the polyphony in Dostoyevsky’s work, also helps clarify the use of the numerous voices in Sometimes a Great Notion.
A plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices is in fact the chief characteristic of Dostoevsky’s novels. What unfolds in his works is not a multitude of characters and fates in a single objective world, illuminated by a single authorial consciousness; rather, a plurality of consciousnesses, with equal rights and each with its own world, combine but are not merged in the unity of the event (6).
In Notion, Kesey juxtaposes one point of view against another, until the reader’s head almost spins. This type of polyphony, for Bakhtin, is a way of conceiving the world primarily in terms of space, not time (28). Bakhtin writes that Dostoyevsky, instead of striving to perceive all existing contradictions as various stages of some unified development,
…attempted to perceive the very stages themselves in their simultaneity, to juxtapose and counterpose them dramatically, and not stretch them out into an evolving sequence. For him, to get one’s bearings on the world meant to conceive all its contents as simultaneous, and to guess at their interrelationships in the cross-section of a single moment (28).
In other words, “He saw and conceived his world primarily in terms of space, not time” (Bakhtin 28).
Kesey, too, conceived of his world in terms of space, not time; hence his interest in polyphony and carnivalization. The opening 45 pages of Notion illustrate Kesey’s supreme interest in space created through polyphony. Kaleidoscopically, the points of view shift from an omniscient narrator, to Drager, to the sun, to a jukebox, to the Stamper house, to a car, to Viv. In this way, it appears that everyone and everything is living simultaneously, and there exists a dialogue between all things — dialogue, not monologue.
Kesey’s interest in dialogue is illustrated by comparing him to Faulkner, a writer Kesey much admired. In Bennett Huffman’s 2001 dissertation on Kesey’s work, he writes:
The American modernist master of multiple perspective strategies is William Faulkner, Ken Kesey’s admitted favourite author. Fifty-nine interior monologues of fifteen different characters make up As I lay Dying (1930). The ratio of fifteen perspectives to fifty-nine distinct sections is an easily graspable level of complexity well within the bounds of the modernist novel. In contrast, Kesey’s most complex novel, Notion, presents a wide range of modes (dialogue, narration, epistolary, internal monologue, etc.) from a larger number of personae (twenty-two) than Faulkner’s work. Unlike the modernist segment, which in Faulkner averages between two to ten pages per monologue, Notion’s segments of perspective can be as short as a single word and rarely ever longer than two pages (62-63).
Kesey’s short, sharp narrative shifts echo the dialogic novels of Dostoyevsky which posses a “continual and abrupt alternation of the most varied types of discourse” (Bakhtin 203). Bakhtin compares the dialogic and monologic novels this way:
Whatever discourse types are introduced by the author-monologist, whatever their compositional distribution, the author’s intentions and evaluations must dominate over all the others and must form a compact and unambiguous whole (202).
In contrast, the author-dialogist, such as Kesey, “does not fear the most extreme activization of vari-directional accents in double-voiced discourse; on the contrary, such activization is precisely what he needs to achieve his purpose” (204).
I would suggest that Kesey’s life-long focus on community was such that he used the polyphonic, dialogic narrative in Notion to invent a literary tribe, although, ultimately, this was not “dialogic” enough for him. He expanded “dialogic narrative” by creating the unique Caverns environment. By means of forming a group novel writing class, he carnivalized the writing process and, by so doing, reformed it, bringing into the mix living narrators who placed their voices alongside his in order to create the spatial “simultaneity” and carnivalization that Bakhtin sees inherent in Menippean Satire.
Kesey’s sense of theater was very much a factor in the group satire he created. Kesey once said: “You can stay passive and sit in the audience or you can get up on stage, be the drama itself.” That’s what he wanted for everyone, that they be the active participants in the theater of their own lives. The group novel writing class was that theater; we were the actors; the novel was the play.
Kesey’s grandfather was part Native American. Kesey told me this one day when I was in Pleasant Hill and we were looking at outtakes of Twister, which he was editing on his Mac. Kesey’s photo came up on the computer monitor. The photo made him look Native American. “Do you have Indian blood?” I asked him. He said, “Let’s put it this way: my grandfather was Indian enough to be on the Indian rolls. Part Cherokee, part Apache.” Possibly, it was this spirit in Kesey that motivated him to lead the life he did, surrounded by pranksters. He created, one way and another, his own personal tribe, ready at a moment’s notice to participate in carnivalized events like driving cross country in a wildly painted school bus, or writing a group novel.
Certainly, it makes sense that such a tribal spirit as his would be interested in group art, in a group novel, the same kind of group work that produced Furthur, the first prankster bus that crossed the country in 1964, and later, Further, a reincarnation of the original bus, whose painting we in the group novel class all contributed to, a modern form of cave painting that gave voice to everyone in Kesey’s community, family, friends, and passers-by.
The bus Further, as well as the CC bus in the novel, are representative of what Bakhtin calls the Carnival Square. He writes that this public space was the main arena for carnival acts because it “belongs to the whole people, it is universal, everyone must participate in its familiar contact…” And, he adds: “Other places of action as well (provided they are realistically motivated by the plot, of course) can, if they become meeting and contact points for heterogeneous people — streets, taverns, roads, bathhouses, decks of ships, and so on –take on this additional carnival-square significance” (128).
In caverns, the CC Rider is the Carnival Square. In life, it was Kesey’s house on Hilyard Street and his bus Further. Each was the setting for “communal performance.” And communal performance is the essence of carnival:
Carnival is the place for working out, in a concretely sensuous half-real and half-play-acted form, a new mode of interrelation-ship between individuals, counterposed to the all-powerful sociohierarchical relationships of non-carnival life. The behavior, gesture, and discourse of a person are freed from the authority of all hierarchical positions (social estate, rank, age, property) defining them totally in non-carnival life, and thus, from the vantage point of non-carnival life, (carnival gestures and behavior) become eccentric and inappropriate. Eccentricity is a special category of the carnival sense of the world (and of Menippea), organically connected with the category of familiar contact; eccentricity permits — in concretely sensuous form — the latent sides of human nature to reveal and express themselves (123).
Just so, through the contrivance of an eccentric and picaresque bus journey, there is a democratic gathering of unrelated characters in Caverns; new modes of relationships are formed )referred to as “oxymoronic combinations” by Bakhtin): the motherless carny Gaby, secretly pregnant, turns to the middle-class, single, highly educated scientist Jo Gaine for maternal aid; the jack-Mormon and racist Boyle learns brotherhood as he comes to the aid of his fellow travelers, including a respect for the intrepid black bus driver, Ned Blue; Father Paul learns, through his attraction to Gaby, that he is meant for love and family life: Juke becomes a recording engineer with the aid of the condescending Rodney Makai whose life is dramatically changed for the better by his encounter with bears. Very pointedly, in fact, the novel’s Epilogue details the eccentric and relatively happy ending of most characters in the book.
Outside the novel’s fictional world, new modes of relationships were forming in our group novel class, as well. The class, a heterogeneous group of relative strangers, came together unexpectedly and found itself on its own sort of picaresque journey. At one point, we were actually taken on an eccentric bus trip to central Oregon, in a window-darkened crummy (driven by Kesey’s brother Chuck) and then introduced to the bowels of a lava cave. This was Kesey’s way of getting around his own dictate: Write what you don’t know. Yes, but…You need to do research. The bus trip to Bend was part of that research, with all our individual writers’ egos touching, seeing, tasting, and smelling the same things. Indeed, during that year, we watched the same movies, read the same books, watched Kesey do magic tricks, drank wine, ate his wife Faye’s marvelous cooking, quarreled, made up, and wrote, in the end, Caverns, a work made up of a polyphony of voices that dovetailed into an innovative kind of novel, the result of a new mode of writing relationship — the result, ultimately, of carnivalization.
As mentioned earlier, carnivalization is defined as the transposition of carnival images into the language of literature. Bakhtin notes that “all the images of carnival are dualistic, a word he uses interchangeably wit the word ambivalent); they unite within themselves both poles of change and crisis: birth and death; blessing and curse; praise and abuse, youth and old age, top and bottom, face and backside, stupidity and wisdom” (126). During medieval European carnivals, Bakhtin writes, there was almost always a special structure, a gaudy vehicle of sorts, usually called “hell,” which, at carnival’s end, was set on fire. Fire is the most ambivalent of all carnival images and woven throughout Caverns is the leitmotif of fire.
All the characters in the novel are like pyromaniacal children playing with a box of matches (to paraphrase a line used to describe Juke, who, during the war, had been a powder monkey). Watching Juke play with fire, lighting one match after another and throwing it to the ground, Loach thinks: “Little truths, flaring and burning out, one after another.” The novel attempts to get at the little truths that define each character.
Fire is present at each point in the journey. Half an hour from the California border, in Nevada, a convertible races past the CC Rider, honking and shouting: “You’re on fire, folks! You’re on fire.” And indeed they are (a tire has burst into flames). And at night there are campfires around which important philosophical encounters take place for various characters. Later, a destructive “bacon” fire burns down a lean-to near the site of the cave, destroying the group’s only shelter. Descending into the cave, the “seekers” use carbide pellets to create little flames of light on their headgear. And, in the end, it is no surprise that it is Chick Ferrel who dies in the cave, the one who forgot his flash equipment, who never had enough light. Finally, there is a huge dynamite blast that unplugs the vortex stopped up by the body of the drowned Chick. The bomb is devised by Juke out of carbide pebbles in glass jars and wrapped with dynamite sticks, the whole invention sparked by a burning cigarette — all this a reflection of destruction and renewal in the text, the dark and the light.
But, be advised, this hustle and bustle of busy soul-searching is done tongue-in-cheek by way of a mult-voiced omniscient narrator who never fails to see the humor in the situation. The laughter in Caverns is very much carnival laughter. The slapstick elements (Juke’s Harpo Marx antics), the puns, the carnivalized prose (full of street slang) are all aimed at creating carnival laughter.
Bakhtin notes that this type of laughter “is linked with the most ancient forms of ritual laughter” (126), which were directed toward something higher, gods, for instance, or earthly authorities, as a way to shame and ridicule them into renewing themselves. Carnival laughter is a “profoundly universal laughter, a laughter that contains a whole outlook on the world” (127). Bakhtin writes that carnival laughter is “deeply ambivalent” and “much was permitted in the form of laughter that was impermissible in serious forms” (127)
Kesey’s earliest novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, is profoundly illustrative of ambivalent laughter. Through the laughter in Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey created “parodia sacra,” which Bakhtin describes as a “parody of sacred texts of ritual” (127), an integral element in Menippean Satire. Cuckoo’s Nest grapples with the enormous issues of sanity and insanity and those who define the differences — definitions which imply one of the society’s most sacred texts.
Caverns is meant, I believe, to parody the “sacred” literary text of the adventure novel, just as Raiders of the Lost Ark parodies old adventure films. Kesey, one speculates, felt dubious about the modern American novel. And given his Preface to Caverns, it’s clear that he was indeed dubious about the modern American novel. Consequently, he formed an eccentric group novel class (a parody) which wrote the one type of group fiction that a group could write: a parody. Caverns is, I believe, exactly the type of work Kesey wanted to produce, in the way he wanted to produce it, given his outlook on the novel and the world. But it must be added that parody is not necessarily a naked rejection of the parodied object. Kesey’s aim, like that of ritual laughter, may well have been to shame and ridicule the novel into renewing itself.
What can be said with assurance is that Kesey’s interest in the polyphonic novel and carnivalization took him “further” than others interested in the same genre. Kesey did not merely create polyphonic characters, he invented a group of polyphonic narrators (our group novel class), thereby fashioning a unique community. Living narrators became “characters” in a live drama that was the novel we wrote together. In describing the workings of the polyphonic novel Bakhtin writes:
A character’s word about himself and his world is just as fully weighted as the author’s word usually is; it is not subordinated to the characters’s objectified image as merely one of his characteristics, nor does it serve as a mouthpiece for the author’s voice. It possesses extraordinary independence in the structure of the work; it sounds, as it were, alongside the author’s word and in a special way combines both with it and with the full and equally valid voices of other characters (7).
We stood along side Kesey in writing Caverns. Our voices were equally valid. If we, as individual narrators, were characters in a living novel, then it’s clear that Kesey’s use of the polyphonic in creating Caverns expanded to include live community. By creating a living polyphony joined with carnivalization, Kesey invented a parody that ultimately asks questions about the nature of art and community.
Kesey was interested in new forms of everything. He was aware, certainly, of living at a dark moment in history, when things are falling apart, hopefully to be reconstituted. Who knows how it will end. It is especially at this time that carnivalized literature makes the most sense. As Loach says in Caverns: “The sideshow always struck me as a mirror of mankind’s hidden face.” Caverns — the process that created it — is a kind of sideshow. Perhaps, by inventing this benign Hydra, Kesey, the old carny, was inviting everyone, now when excessive individualism has led us to the brink of annihilation, to study our culture’s hidden face — that of community.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Trans. Caryl Emerson.
Minneapolis. University of Minnesota Press. 1984
Huffman, Bennett. Fictional Forms and Social Visions in the Works of Ken Kesey. Dis. University of Liverpool. 2001.