Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

I’d heard of Flowers for Algernon before, but didn’t know much about it other than it was a respected and highly regarded work of classic science fiction. I’m not really a science fiction person, so the book didn’t appear on my radar overall. Two things brought it to my attention as something to read. One was JJ Abrams action/drama Person of Interest which featured Flowers for Algernon as the inspiration for one of the show’s more intriguing villains. I wanted to see what about the book inspired the character. Then Fantasy Faction chose it as their science fiction book for November.

Even when I cracked Flowers for Algernon open I didn’t know much more about it than the information on the back cover blurb. I was not at all prepared for the powerful emotional response that it provoked within me.

The book is presented as a diary or journal of a mentally disabled man called Charlie Gordon. Charlie has an IQ of 68, and he works sweeping the floors of a bakery near Beekman university. Despite his low IQ and difficulties retaining even simple concepts, Charlie wants to be smart, and to that end he enrols in a class taught by Alice Kinnian for mentally disabled adults to learn how to read and write at a higher level than he can currently achieve.

Miss Kinnian brings Charlie to the attention of a research group at the university, who are working on a way of increasing human intelligence, and see Charlie as a possible human ‘guinea pig’. They’ve had some success with mice. The Algernon of the title is their star subject, having undergone an operation to increase his intelligence and had it succeed for longer than any other subject they’ve used. In fact the point is made early on by having Charlie and Algernon run the same maze (Charlie does it with an electronic pointer) and Algernon beating Charlie every time that the mouse is actually smarter than the man.   

Charlie undergoes the operation, and initially doesn’t seem all that much smarter, but in a relatively short space of time his intelligence increases dramatically and the genius level that he attains also unlocks his memory, giving him access to traumatic childhood events that he had mercifully buried in the recesses of his mind.

Charlie is astoundingly intelligent. He can speak multiple languages, solve complex mathematical theorems in seconds and outstrips nearly every mind on the planet. Despite how smart he is, he hasn’t had personal growth or experience and he’s not equipped to handle the emotional responses he is now receiving from his interactions with other people. He’s grown mentally, but as a person he is still a young child who has difficulty dealing with the world as an adult. He’s also incredibly lonely. When he had a low IQ he was cut off from others because they couldn’t come down to his level, now no one can associate with him as an equal, because he is so much more intelligent than they are.

The reader has to feel for Charlie. All he wanted was to be like others. He didn’t want to be a genius. He just wanted to be smart enough to read and write at an acceptable level, maybe rise above sweeping the floors of the bakery to actually become an apprentice baker or even a master baker. Instead he became an unapproachable genius and effectively walled himself off from everyone around him. The only creature he feels really understands him is Algernon, possibly because they share an experience.

Not long after the operation Charlie proclaims that as long as Algernon is okay, so is he, so when the mouse begins to behave erratically and it’s clear that the effects of the surgery are wearing off and even becoming harmful, readers get a sick feeling that the same will happen to Charlie.

There are heartbreaking encounters with his long absent father, his abusive mother, now herself suffering debilitating senility (it’s never referred to as Alzheimers, but that’s clearly what it is) and his younger sister, who never understood before Charlie was sent away what she had inadvertently done to him.

Inevitably Charlie’s mind begins to fail him. Bit by bit everything is taken away from him. He can’t understand other languages, he can’t do anything than the most simple mathematical problems, he even forgets where he lives in more than one occasion. Algernon has by this stage passed away from the effects of the experiment. although Charlie always remembers to put flowers on his friend’s little grave.

When Charlie forgets and turns up at Miss Kinnian’s class as a student again not long after making the heartfelt plea in his Progress Report to not let him forget how to read and write I was in tears.

What Daniel Keyes did with Flowers for Algernon was, at the time, revolutionary. He refused to give it a happy ending where Charlie regains his intelligence, marries Alice and lives happily ever after, and he had problems finding a publisher because of it. I’m glad he stuck to his guns. Despite how heartbreaking the end is I would have felt ripped off if it had been given a happily ever after ending. The style is unusual too. It’s told by Charlie in the form of Progress Reports that he’s asked to write by the two scientists (Dr Strauss and Professor Nemur) in charge of the project. The early reports are littered with spelling errors and a lack of punctuation as befits someone of Charlie’s low IQ, they gradually change to become quite scientifically and emotionally complex as Charlie’s intelligence and personal experience increase. Then as his new found intelligence starts to fail the style reverts back and by the end Charlie seems less intelligent than he was when he began his journey.

Although the book is classified as science fiction, the science fiction (the operation that is trialled on Charlie) is a minimal part of it. It explores themes of bullying and child abuse, the way that intellectually disabled members of society are frequently misunderstood, marginalised and mistreated. There’s also a commentary on the ethics of science and the use of experimental techniques on animals and people. It’s not a long book and it’s not hard to read or understand, but it will give you something to think about long after you’ve closed it. Brilliant, brilliant book and I urge everyone who has never read it to do so.   

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