Where is the line between interpretation and misunderstanding?
“Sometimes a Great Notion,” in both book and film form, divided me and my father for years. Now, I’m beginning to suspect we were both right.
I once wrote an article for this site about my personal interpretation of “Blade Runner 2049,” which drew not only on the film’s many layers of meaning and visual storytelling, but on my own experiences and state of mind at the time of the film’s premiere. I purposely distinguished this write-up from my separate, more traditional analysis of the film, but I still felt my interpretation — no matter how unabashedly subjective — had merit.
Now bear with me. Recently, I found myself thinking about “Sometimes a Great Notion,” which is both my favorite novel (authored by Ken Kesey of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” fame) and a middling 70’s film adaptation directed by, and starring, Paul Newman. Coincidentally or not, the book and film were also very important to my late father, but for completely different reasons. While I see the book as a deeply affecting tragedy about a family’s streak of stubbornness (or “pathological grit“) over the generations, told in an absorbing stream-of-consciousness style and granted mythical proportions by its setting in the Pacific Northwest on the banks of a beautiful but menacingly encroaching river, my father saw it as an endorsement of the family’s obstinate “Never Give a Inch!” motto, an interpretation that fit neatly into his own personal narrative of a world determined to persecute him every step of the way, but one that always seemed to me to be a misunderstanding of nearly every element of the story.
Like Henry Stamper, the patriarch of the story’s Oregon logging family who refuses to shut down his family business in the midst of a union logging strike, my father believed himself to be a rare Good Man with Principles, beset on all sides by a society that wanted to trip him up at every turn and run him into the ground.
In some respects, it was probably this sentiment that drew him to Kesey in the first place. Kesey’s more well-known “Cuckoo’s Nest” is a fiery rebuke of a mechanistic and remorseless society that ruthlessly discards people who don’t fit the mold, so there’s no doubt the author had a certain affinity for those who refuse to compromise on their ideals.
The problem is, “Notion” is far less black and white than “Cuckoo’s Nest.” Henry Stamper’s enemies, the union and its striking loggers, constitute a whole army of people who refuse to compromise on their ideals, and it’s their welfare, not that of the Stampers, that will determine the fate of the local town that depends on a thriving logging industry. Complicating matters further is the prominence of the logging industry itself, which Kesey regards with ambivalence as dangerous and environmentally damaging, and yet awe-inspiring for the majesty and grand scale of the natural surroundings in which the work takes place. In short, the story has no easy heroes or villains, only outsized personalities going to war against each other with tragic consequences that unfold over the course of generations. Along the way, the book also has a lot to say about generational suffering, fathers and sons, and the way pivotal events echo and repeat themselves throughout time.
But here’s the thing: that’s more or less an academic reading of the book. The closest I’ve ever been to Oregon is Washington, and then only for a week, which makes it hard to imagine what growing up and living with the logging industry is really like. I’ve never worked with trees, much as I admire them. But my father, inspired by the film version of the story, traveled to Oregon and lived there for a time as a young man. He didn’t cut down trees, but he did plant them for a living — for a little while, at least. Over the course of his life, he probably lived the lives of many characters in the book, from the young, depressed, educated misfit of a grandson to the conflicted and rebellious but ultimately loyal son Hank, and finally the stubborn old man Henry, who believes he’s seen it all and has no patience for anyone who gets in his way.
In that sense, it’s only natural that my father would see the story in a different light. But there’s more to it than that.
My father had little academic interest in films or literature. Whereas I would break things down in my head, trying to understand why a director would frame a shot in a certain way or an author would linger on a description of the landscape, he would react to the characters as if they were real people. He would hate the evil characters — and I mean Hate. He would sometimes scream and curse at the villains onscreen as if they had personally offended him — and quite literally weep with joy when good characters he truly respected would prevail.
This would even manifest itself at perhaps the most basic version of a good versus evil matchup: a college basketball game. He would fly into an authentic and sometimes unsettling rage if the team he was rooting against took the lead, because that was the “bad” team, and the good guys were losing.
In some ways, that made him a writer’s dream: He took the characters at face value, and if the narrative involved a good man prevailing against the forces of darkness, he was probably going to like it.
But this attitude also made it difficult for him to tolerate more complicated depictions of morality. Antiheroes, for example, were a tough sell. A protagonist usually wasn’t worth following if his vices competed with those of the “villains.” And if the story involved aliens or superheroes, he was out, because he had no desire to suspend his disbelief.
In contrast, though I probably owe some of my enjoyment of emotionally engaging stories — melodramas, in particular — to my early memories of sharing tearjerker epics like “Legends of the Fall” with him, my experience of art has always been divided in two, between the analytical observer and the laid-back spectator who just wants to have a good time. So while I understand that art can mean many things to many people, I also know that, like a carpenter building the frame of a house, a writer builds a story piece by piece in order to convey specific information in the form of themes and emotions. Even the most open-ended works of art are made with intent, and I want to understand that intent. But that’s only one type of understanding, the kind that schools encourage while frowning on more imaginative or personally-informed interpretations that are, in fact, a form of art unto themselves.
For a long time, I thought my father was simply wrong about “Notion.” His conception of Hank Stamper as the unquestionable hero of the story would have probably caused Kesey to raise an eyebrow — just as he likely balked at Newman’s earnest but hopelessly simplified adaptation — but that’s beside the point; my father had a strong connection to the story, and that was his to treasure. Of my interpretation of Blade Runner 2049, I wrote, “Regardless of whether or not [director] Villeneuve and the writers fully intended to create a story about a working-class drone rising up to defy the dictates of society, that was the film I saw, and I will forever be grateful for it.” This is the same dynamic at work, the willingness to fuse one’s own personal experiences and philosophies with the experience of art. Is this tendency wrong or misguided? Maybe, maybe not. But I’ve come to respect that it’s real.
In closing, here is one last anecdote about my father. When I was little more than a toddler, Ken Kesey came to town for a book signing. The book in question was one of his final efforts, the aptly-titled “Last Go Round,” but my father brought with him two children’s books Kesey had authored several years before: “The Sea Lion” and “Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear.”
Both were signed and dedicated to me, and they are some of my most prized possessions. I was far too young at the time to know who Kesey was, but he kept the books safe for me until I could enjoy them, and I will keep them safe for my daughter. That is perhaps the most profound lesson in “Notion;” as humans, everything we have is generational in nature. Our flaws, our knowledge, our pain, and our journey toward becoming better. In my family, what Kesey built, and what my father shared with me, will not be lost.