Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon (1966)

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Another book from my summer reading list, and another heavy hitter, winner of Nebula and Hugo awards, a solid presence on many “Best of SF” lists (check here and here, for example; these are just the top of the pile, – if you don’t like them, pick another 😉 the internet is full of lists and Keyes’s book is on most of them). It’s a short book, mere 216 pages in my SF Masterworks edition from Gollancz, but like another recently reviewed classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz, it carries a lot of weight. Flowers for Algernon is a SF must-read and a tear-jerker, an intimate, nuanced psychological portrait of a man coming from darkness to light, as the Plato’s quote on the first page slyly suggests. But is he really?

The protagonist of the novel, Charlie Gordon, is a 32-year old with IQ of 68. And yes, the age is important – when the book begins, Charlie’s nearing his 33th birthday. He works at a bakery, sweeping floors, cleaning toilets, doing all the simple, menial jobs a person with sub-normal level of IQ can do. What sets him apart from others like him is his drive to knowledge, his willingness to learn. And he gets his chance to become smarter when the local university starts looking for a human subject for their experiment in the area of neurosurgical augmentation of brain functions. The experimental therapy had been successfully tried on animal subjects before and the results were promising enough to induce the scientists into going to the human-testing phase. Charlie becomes the first person to undergo this kind of brain treatment and he’s obligated to document the changes in him in the form of written “Progress Reports”. Flowers for Algernon are constructed as Charlie’s diary, a complete set of the intimate, sometimes painfully honest reports he had been writing throughout the experiment. We witness the changes, minute at first and then accelerating with breathtaking speed, seeing his transformation from a boy in man’s body to an adolescent genius blowing up all possible IQ scales, to a grown, mature man accepting the world as it is. But the changes don’t stop there.

I said it was a tear-jerker. And it is. The way Flowers for Algernon had been created, the pure and aesthetically pleasing circular structure, is what turns reading the novel into an emotionally wrenching and painful experience. I don’t want to spoil the book to those who hadn’t read it yet, so I won’t say anything else about the plot – except that it makes you admire the perfect cleanness of the solution and at the same time rage at the total unfairness of it.

Flowers for Algernon is a book often read in American schools and often banned in American schools, for different reasons. Keyes’s debut novel is a powerful appeal for tolerance and understanding, a practical lesson in compassion, and a very nuanced picture of the painful process of emotional and intellectual growth. It has it all, from adolescent anxiety to the heady conviction of being the best in the world, the feeling of immortality perplexingly mixed with a fear of one’s own body and longing for the bodies of others. Apparently the openness with which Keyes wrote about Charlie’s experiences banned this book from many libraries – but don’t be misled: there’s nothing graphic or vulgar in Flowers for Algernon, be it sex scenes or not.

Keyes writes carefully, striving to stay true to the voice of a deeply changing man. I’m happy to say that he succeeds. I appreciated the care with which he treated the obvious changes in vocabulary and grammar structure, but what really got to me was the change of perspective; the different interests and problems, the many-voiced journey from a boy through an adolescent to a man and beyond… I don’t agree with the rather stereotypical notion that intelligence by itself will jump you up into the realm of sociopaths, even mild, or at least cynics. However, it’s so nicely written, Charlie’s transformation so fluid and believable, that I won’t begrudge Keyes his fancy. Not much, at least ;).

It’s a tough read, made tougher by the total honesty with which each entry is made; we learn about Charlie’s fears and hopes, about his joys and sorrows, and we witness them changing as the world around him opens up to him and becomes understandable. To say I had enjoyed this book would be an understatement; I swallowed it whole on one train trip to Warsaw. It’s a powerful, profoundly moving, deeply engaging read. The only caveat is that it’s written from an inherently Christian perspective; sure, you can read it without that background and it still will be a thrilling, riveting read. But the undercurrent of Christian worldview permeates this book; from the symbolic age of the main protagonist to the deeply ingrained and openly expressed by at least a couple of characters Biblical notion of knowledge. And that’s how we come back to the first question: what it really means to Charlie, that miraculous intellectual jump, that awesome boon of knowledge? Does it make him happier? Does it make him more? Those questions, mostly left by the author to be answered by readers (maybe except for a few hints, here and there, which may be easily ignored if one so chose ;)), reminded me of The Praise of Folly by Erasmus of Rotterdam – and it’s illuminating to fully appreciate the difference of opinion between the Renaissance treatise and the 1960’s SF novel.

It’s a book that stays with you for a long, long time. You may not agree with it, you may scoff at the sentimentality, and granted, it is sentimental, but there is something true and touching in Charlie’s coming-of-age story as well.

And few last words about Algernon. He is an exceptionally smart laboratory mouse, Charlie’s rival and friend, and a very potent allegory, a foreshadowing of all the changes that affect the main protagonist. Charlie sees himself in the small white rodent, their fates mirroring each other so closely that in their entwined light the title of Keyes’s book takes on a new, even more poignant meaning.

Score: 8,5/10

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