Apr 14 2010

Flowers for Algernon

Tonight, I finished Daniel Keyes‘ 1966 novel “Flowers for Algernon“. And… I’m not feeling particularly snarky at the moment. I wonder why? This is one of the few epistolary styled stories that I’ve read that hasn’t annoyed me. It’s crucial to the storytelling. The book consists of seventeen Progress Reports, written by the main character Charlie Gordon, over the course of a science experiment to make him smarter. This is no small feat since Charlie begins the book with an IQ of 68. On the surface, this is a borderline science-fiction story about modifying the human brain. Beneath the surface (snorkel depth at most) the book explores mental retardation (or whatever they call it these days) and how we treat and deal with these people. The book is sobering to say the least.

From the beginning of the book, the eventual outcome is handed to the reader in an open box. The story doesn’t succeed or fail on the reader’s ability to predict the outcome. From the start, it is a foregone conclusion that this can’t end well. Charlie’s predecessor, a lab mouse named Algernon, has undergone the same surgery and improved remarkably. Encouraged by these preliminary results, the scientists rush to find a suitable human subject for a one man clinical trial. Charlie’s intellectual ascent is temporary. The only questions are how fast and how high will Charlie’s intelligence climb before his inevitable descent. Does that ruin the story? It didn’t for me. I knew that much before picking up the book. What I didn’t expect was a science fiction story that delved into the thoughts, emotions, and prejudices of people more than the technology. This is actually the best possible use of science fiction and fantasy stories. Too much concentration on technology (or magic) is usually a sign that the story is lacking. “Flowers for Algernon” doesn’t fall into that rut. I’m also pleased that Keyes didn’t submit to editors’ suggestions that he mainstream the ending. At one point the author even returned a publisher’s advance rather than debase his work, preferring instead to wait until a publisher would accept the story as-is.

It’s hard to believe there are still people out there who support the banning of this book in schools (well, Texas I can understand). In some respects, I feel the same way about Flowers that I did about “Catcher in the Rye” (1951) the first time I read it; I wished I’d read it sooner. There’s a lot of things to take from this book, things that you may find yourself thinking about long after you’ve transplanted the bookmark into the next item on the shelf. That’s a very good thing…

“Im out of the hospital but not back at werk yet. Nothing is happining. I had lots of tests and differint kinds of races with Algernon. I hate that mouse.”

4.5 out of 5