Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes Review


I’ve known about this novel since I was in high school but didn’t get around to reading it until just recently at the age of 33 (coincidentally the same age as the protagonist!). I read a Simpsons comic and watched an episode of the Simpsons TV show which both covered the same story so I felt like I didn’t need to read the original. But I’m glad I finally checked out Daniel Keyes’ Flowers For Algernon because it’s actually really good - it definitely deserves its classic status. 

Charlie Gordon is a simpleton with an IQ of 68. Working as a cleaner at a bakery, Charlie wishes he was smarter so people will respect him more so he volunteers for experimental surgery to do just that - and it works! His IQ triples and Charlie is a new man in a whole new world. And then he discovers that the successful test mouse, Algernon, has started regressing and realises that his time as a genius is growing shorter and shorter… 

Flowers For Algernon is labelled a SF classic but really the brilliant premise is the book’s only sci-fi aspect. It’s actually an unexpectedly very powerful and dramatic human story which I feel makes it not just a genre classic but easily a literary one too. I only mention the distinction because often old SF books are badly written and cheesy as all hell and Daniel Keyes’ novel is nothing like that. 

Keyes cleverly chooses to write the story in the first person so we can see the change in Charlie’s intelligence through the writing which starts off with poor spelling, language and grammar until, following the surgery, it improves until it’s perfect. More than that though, Keyes writes Charlie’s voice beautifully. It’s convincing at every stage of his transformation and even when he’s simpleton Charlie the writing never comes off cartoonishly or mocking. Keyes’ greatest accomplishment in this novel is the character of Charlie Gordon who’s a bonafide unique literary creation up there with the likes of Huck Finn and Captain Ahab. 

Once Charlie becomes a genius, he starts seeing his old self in eerie out-of-body hallucinations. It’s an inspired approach because in a very real sense these two Charlies are completely separate but also it puts the new Charlie in the same position as the reader, learning about the old Charlie’s past at the same time through revisiting old memories that he’s now able to understand with this sudden gift of intelligence. 

Keyes also notes the subtle distinction between academic intelligence and emotional intelligence. So while Charlie is able to speed-read numerous books and become adept at various disciplines and languages, emotionally he’s still child-like, as we see when he tries to express his feelings to the woman he falls for, Alice Kinnian. 

And that’s another bitter twist of irony in the tale: simple Charlie was happy with his life and had friends; genius Charlie finds his intelligence isolates him, he loses his old friends, and he becomes unhappy. He hoped cleverness would make him more friends but the opposite happened - be careful what you wish for. In fact, it only made him more miserable after he realised his old friends sometimes behaved cruelly to him. Charlie realises intelligence doesn’t make you happy or give you a fulfilled life - human contact does. It’s a somewhat elementary but profound truth. 

The story lost me for a while in the middle when Charlie and Algernon escaped from the science conference in a hammy sequence (people shrieking and leaping onto chairs as Algernon the mouse ran free) and Charlie dating the bohemian artist was meandering, overlong and a bit pointless. I also feel like Keyes didn’t fully explore the possibilities of Charlie’s genius IQ and that this was done better in the Bradley Cooper movie Limitless which had a similar premise and was obviously inspired in part by Keyes’ novel. 

But the book ends strongly once Charlie learns that he’s going to lose his smarts and decides to track down and reconnect with his estranged parents and sister. The scene between him, his abusive mother and his sister blew me away - it was the kind of moving drama I’d expect to see in an Arthur Miller play rather than a SF novel (sorry to keep ragging on SF but, having read enough shitty SF novels, I feel like it’s earned it!). A lot of the book is kind of a downer but Keyes’ writing was too compelling to not keep going and the ending is quietly positive albeit also unapologetically sentimental. Oof, it’s such an emotional read! 

Yeah, I enjoyed Flowers For Algernon and highly recommend it!

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