Tuesday, 17 July 2012
Review: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Released: September 1st, 2011 (reprint)
Following his doctor's instructions, engaging simpleton Charlie Gordon tells his own story in a semi-literate "progris riports". He dimly wants to better himself but with an IQ of 68 can't even beat the laboratory mouse Algernon at maze-solving. Algernon is extra-clever thanks to an experimental brain operation so far tried only on animals. Charlie eagerly volunteers as the first human subject. After frustrating delays and agonies of concentration, the effects begin to show and the reports steadily improve. But getting smarter brings cruel shocks, as Charlie realises that his merry "friends" at the bakery where he sweeps the floor have all along been laughing at him, never with him. The IQ rise continues, taking him steadily past the human average to genius level and beyond, until he's as intellectually alone as the old, foolish Charlie ever was--and now painfully aware of it. Then, ominously, the smart mouse Algernon begins to deteriorate...
Flowers for Algernon was first published in 1966, and I'm quite ashamed to say I'd never heard of it until a couple of weeks ago when I bought a selection of the Gollancz 50 titles with bright yellow covers. It immediately grabbed my attention and, even though I don't usually find older books easy to read, something pulled me towards it and I started it straight away. I'm so glad I read it because it's a brilliant book, one that is worthy of its classic sc-i-fi status and one that I'm still thinking about now.
Charlie Gordon is thirty-two years old at the start of the novel, and he's intellectually challenged. He has an IQ of 68, can't read or write well and is often blind to what's going on around him. For example, his friends at the bakery where he works aren't really his friends: they laugh at him and make him do things because they know they can and he will. Instead of realising what they're doing, Charlie thinks they're his best friends and that they laugh at him because they like him so much. If only that were the case. A short while later, Charlie's literacy teacher, Alice Kinnian, recommends him for an experimental brain operation that will make him smarter. It's already been tested on a mouse called Algernon, and so far it looks like it's been successful. Charlie volunteers, has the operation and within a couple of months his intelligence is increasing, he becomes self-aware and gradually starts to experience some emotional connections that are all new to him.
This book just about broke my heart. I loved Charlie from the beginning, because of his efforts to always better himself. He was trusting and kind and never hurt a fly. No-one was particularly nice to him but he didn't let that deter him. He carried on working, going to his job at the bakery every day, and he also took classes to teach him how to read and write. Because Charlie couldn't do both those things well to start with, the book starts off being written in phonetic English. Charlie spells things as he says them, which was a bit distracting and took me a while to wrap my head around. I soon got used to it though and I think it was a really clever thing for Daniel Keyes to do because I felt like I was in Charlie's head.
After the experiment, Charlie's spelling and grammar improves, and he's literally a genius. Everyone around him thinks he's a know-it-all who thinks he's better than they are, but to Charlie he's just been given the chance to learn everything he possibly can. He doesn't immediately understand that he's now much more intelligent than your average person, scientists even, and their negative behaviour confuses him. This just shows that even though he now has a high IQ, he's still a boy in his mind. He's never grown up with the knowledge and common sense of everyone around him, and learning all that in a short period of time is bound to have an effect on him.
As Algernon deteriorates at quite a rapid speed, Charlie realises that the same thing could happen to him. Reading his diary entries and progress reports at this stage was so difficult, because he knows what's happening and he wants to contribute to science by finding out why and what went wrong. His relationships start to sufffer, and he quickly becomes frustrated. I won't say any more about the rest of the plot, because what unfolds really is thought-provoking and very, very sad. Flowers for Algernon is about experiments and artificial intelligence, but it's also about one man's life within a prejudiced society. It's about how he lives and survives, how he welcomes change and the ability to learn and, ultimately, how nothing can take away his appreciation and value of life.
If like me you've never heard of Flowers for Algernon, I urge you to get a copy. It's a timeless story that isn't too sci-fi for the average reader, and one that will appeal to all genders and all ages. I'm so glad I happened across a copy and decided to pay some attention to it. It's a beautifully realised story that's given me a lot to discuss and think about, and I hope I find more people who have read it.