Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Just finished reading Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes which follows the trials and tribulations of Charlie Gordon. If you’re planning on reading this prepare to be a bit wrung out as you watch Charlie’s ups and downs. This is undoubtedly a sad book, no mistake there at all, but more than that it’s incredibly thought provoking and a really good read. My mind is reeling now I’ve finished and I’m not quite sure even where to start!
Firstly, a little snippet about the author:
‘Daniel Keyes wrote little SF but is highly regarded for one classic, Flowers for Algernon. As a 1959 novella it won a Hugo award; the 1966 novel-length expansion won a Nebula. The Oscar-winning movie adaptation Charly (1968) also spawned a 1980 Broadway musical’.
At the beginning of the book Charlie, who has a very low IO, has been put forward by his teacher Alice for a potential scientific experiment to help improve his intelligence. This is a new programme, not yet tested on humans, and so far the tests on animals seem to be progressing well. Charlie is so excited to become a part of this programme. He knows he’s different and all he longs for is to fit in. He thinks that becoming more intelligent will make him popular! At the start of the story Charlie lives in a care facility, he works in a bakery performing menial tasks and more often than not falling foul of the ridicule of his colleagues – although he’s not quite aware enough to realise he’s being made fun of most of the time and thinks that he’s just making people laugh.
The story is told in the form of Progress Reports written by Charlie and which start prior to him being operated on by Professor Nemur until the conclusion of the book. This is a wonderfully simple and yet beguiling way to tell this tale as you watch the reports turn from flawed and full of poor grammar and spelling to very articulate and complex written narratives. Therefore without any lengthy explanations you see, quite literally, Charlie’s rise! The most successful experiment prior to Charlie was a mouse called Algernon. At the start of the story this little white lab mouse can knock spots off Charlie at all sorts of tests and mazes. Algernon’s intelligence seems to be greater than Charlie’s and he’s given increasingly difficult problems to solve before he’s allowed to eat. Of course, after Charlie’s operation his own intelligence increases at such a rate that pretty soon he’s outgrown not only the lab mouse and other tests but also the very professors who seem to have worked this miracle. So, everyone is of course delighted with the procedure until Algernon begins to show signs of regression and Charlie begins to realise that his time as a genius, who can speak 10 languages and out philosophise just about anybody, may be limited. Of course he is incredibly intelligent so he can simply work on solving the problem himself!
What did I love about this book. Well, this probably won’t be terribly coherent but firstly it was fascinating to watch Charlie change. He started out as this fairly simple but genuinely lovely guy who people mostly cared about. Some of these people genuinely liked Charlie, some of them on the other hand enjoyed his misfortune as it made them feel superior. As Charlie’s intelligence rose he started to undergo changes. Firstly, he started to remember things from his past. His mother beating him for his failings, his sister’s shame at having a brother who everyone thought was a dunce, his father, henpecked and harassed by his proud mother. He recalls glimpses of himself from the past being openly ridiculed by people who he thought cared for him. These memories are all a little bit heartbreaking to read about as it starts to dawn on Charlie exactly what was taking place and see him slowly become suspicious of everyone around him. However, whilst Charlie’s mental capacity is racing ahead his emotional growth is not and this makes it difficult for him to cope with the changes and constant stream of information. For example you read about Charlie going through various stages such as a simple crush on his teacher Alice. One minute he’s quite simply in love and the next spiralling into furious anger at her standoffish behaviour. This finally culminates in an aloof sort of arrogance as he realises that Alice is no longer equal to him in terms of intelligence and feels relieved to cut her free. In fact for a moment there Charlie really does become a little bit unbearable himself until he starts to learn how to deal with his feelings. Ironically, Charlie didn’t fit in with a low IQ and he still doesn’t fit in after the operation because his IQ is now so high that people still feel uncomfortable in his presence!
At this point Charlie starts to feel as though he’s being watched by the ‘pre-operation’ version of himself. It’s almost as if Charlie’s personality has split – there’s ‘SuperCharlie’ and then there’s ‘not so SuperCharlie’ waiting patiently to reclaim his body and previous life. Part of this split in his personality seems to be about dealing with his emotions and family ghosts and this is something he has to come to terms with himself.
You do feel so incredibly sorry for him – he’s bombarded with information and knowledge. His brain is like a huge sponge just soaking up every fact and figure possible and yet at the same time a simple human interaction can be so difficult for him. As Charlie begins to adapt emotionally he comes to the conclusion that the people at the lab don’t think of him as a human – he’s their creation – and this and other aspects of the story did remind me a little of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Professor Nemur seemed to create something of his own ‘monster’ in Charlie and indeed the professor reached a stage where he could barely tolerate his own ‘creation’. Until finally Charlie escapes from his lab life and branches out on his own for a while – sneaking Algernon out with him.
And… I won’t give anything further away – I don’t want to spoil the ending after all. This is an excellent book, written in such a simple manner that manages to completely captivate. It tells Charlie’s story with ease and yet at the same time manages to conjure up quite easily the other people in Charlie’s life.
I would definitely recommend this – it’s quite a timeless, simple and yet unique story.
I’m submitting this for four of my challenges:
- Stainless Steel Droppings Sci Fi Event
- Little Red Reviewer Vintage Sci Fi Event
- 100 Books in a year
- Classics Club 50 list