I somehow managed to completely miss this book growing up. I only became aware of it in the last few years. I see it spoken of as if it’s The Outsiders at times, so I’m guessing it must be part of school curriculum for some, but I knew absolutely nothing about it. In fact, I thought it was a classic fantasy novel when I picked it up. I suppose Algernon sounded fantasy-ish to me, and I hadn’t heard of Algernon Charles Swinburne, the poet that inspired the name. There’s a bunch I don’t know, it turns out.
Flowers for Algernon is not fantasy. It’s an epistolary science fiction novel, with more of an emphasis on the human condition than technology, which seems very common in the genre’s classics (and I love that). Charlie Gordon suffers from a learning disability and has a reported IQ of 68. He’s in his 30s and has a simple job performing menial tasks in a bakery, making deliveries and cleaning mostly. He’s always had a drive to learn, not matter how futile it had seemed, so he finds himself in a reading and writing class for mentally disabled adults. From that class, he’s picked to participate in a lab procedure that has the potential to raise his IQ. This test has been performed on a lab rat, named Algernon, but Charlie will be the first human test subject.
As we’re reading about Charlie in his current struggles, we also learn about Charlie’s past through memories that are slowly coming back to him. We see his childhood through his new intelligence, understanding things that were said to him and done to him that he wasn’t able to fully comprehend at the time, and it often isn’t pretty. It’s as if he has the memories of another person. At the same time, we have the lab rat Algernon who keeps us thinking about Charlie’s future and what may happen to him physically. It all weaves together smoothly.
It may sound like ingratitude, but that is one of the things I hate here – the attitude that I am a guinea pig. Nemur’s constant references to having made me what I am, or that someday there will be others like me who will become real human beings. How can I make him understand that he did not create me?
The novel is written through Charlie’s status updates after undergoing the brain surgery. This allows a unique opportunity to see not only how his personality and observations change, but also how his vocabulary and writing progress. Daniel Keyes executed the transition perfectly, and I found myself often surprised by the changes in character and what they revealed. It’s something that so easily could have been predictable, but he made it work so well.
Intelligence is one of the greatest human gifts. But all too often a search for knowledge drives out the search for love. This is something else I’ve discovered for myself very recently. I present it to you as a hypothesis: Intelligence without the ability to give and receive affection leads to mental and moral breakdown, to neurosis, and possibly even psychosis. And I say that the mind absorbed in and involved in itself as a self-centered end, to the exclusion of human relationships, can only lead to violence and pain.
It’s gripping and insightful and tragic, and I’d recommend it to anyone.