It came as a big surprise to me, aged 19, to realise that novels were written on purpose. I’m not sure that I’d thought about it that much, I had been too busy playing in a band and not concentrating at school. But after crashing out of exams, and a year of work, I decided to retake my A levels. I ended up with an English teacher (I wish I could remember his name) who taught structure. Writers write on purpose. When a character in a Jane Austen novel goes ‘beyond the ha-ha’, or wanders down a serpentine path, it means something.
Well, duh. Except for me it was like cracking a code. Like the first time I was told that the scrolling black-and-white thing at the top of a TV screen means there’s about to be an advert break. Or that every time a character is sad in a film, it is raining. This was great!
My favourite book at the time was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I had got the idea that it would be interesting to look at the halfway point in novels. Because if you were going to write on purpose that would be an obvious place to have something significant, (don’t even get me started on Sophie’s Choice). I opened it at exactly halfway, and found a dog. A page-and-a-half about a dog, to be precise. Chief Bromden is looking out of the asylum window and he sees, ‘a young gangly mongrel slipped off from home to find out about things went on after dark.’ The dog explores holes in the fence, is distracted by migrating geese, and then sets off after them. Then I looked at the start of the novel and found this: ‘A bluetick hound bays out there in the fog, running scared and lost because he can’t see.’ And at the end of the novel, ‘I ran across the grounds in the direction I remembered seeing the dog go.’ Just planted in there: the beginning, the middle and the end: a mirror to the Chief’s state of mind. I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t been looking. It’s almost as if Ken Kesey knew what he was doing.