Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Flowers for Algernon is one of the most celebrated science fiction novels ever written, and one which took me far too long to get around to. Intensely moving and beautifully written, Flowers for Algernon hasn’t aged a day since its original publication in 1966.
Flowers for Algernon is told as a series of Progress Reports by Charlie Gordon, a severely retarded young man with an IQ of 68. Charlie has been chosen to take part in an experiment aimed to raise human intelligence, an experiment which has already succeeded on the laboratory mouse Algernon. The experiment is a success, and Charlie rapidly rises to genius levels of intelligence, whilst remaining an emotional child, but as he sees Algernon begin to regress to his previous intelligence he realises the tragic fate in store for him.
This isn’t a novel necessarily concerned with big science fiction ideas, but is more about the philosophy of what makes us human. Throughout Flowers for Algernon Charlie rejects the notion that before his surgery he wasn’t completely human, that it his intelligence which gives him value. Flowers for Algernon is a meditation on how we treat the most unfortunate members of our societies, with kindness, but also condescension and a lack o f respect for their essential humanity and equality to ourselves.
Charlie’s intellectual journey is fascinating to follow, although things do get a little bit bogged down towards the middle. Charlie spends slightly too much time wallowing in existential angst, with the most interesting elements coming from the contrast between his extreme intelligence and his stunted emotional and sexual development. The best parts of the novel lie in its beginning and end, as Charlie travels from idiocy to genius and then his journey back. Flowers for Algernon is based on a much briefer short story, and as such there’s some stuff that feels like padding, but by and large the added length only serves to give us a deeper insight into Charlie, and that’s definitely worthwhile.
Keyes conveys Charlie’s good natured stupidity with compassion and restraint, resisting the urge to mock or to stereotype in his portrayal of gentle stupidity. Charlie growing grasp of English as the novel goes on is handled in a brilliantly smooth fashion, and it’s difficult to pin point the exact moment that Charlie transitions from the punctuation free naive rambles of his earlier self to the tormented genius he becomes. Keyes is equally good conveying genius and idiocy; this is the perfect way to tell this kind of story, and I cannot imagine it working in any other medium.
This is a deeply personal story, with the only real character of depth being Charlie. Charlie is understandably self obsessed, with his attempts to comprehend his life with an IQ of 68 as a genius standing as the most fascinating element of this book. The supporting cast is interesting, although I wasn’t crazy about the character of Alice, Charlie’s former teacher and future love interest. She’s a rather pathetic character, prone to sobbing, and it’s difficult to see what Charlie sees in her. Still, this is Charlie’s book, and Charlie is one of the most human, interesting and tragic characters to ever grace science fiction.
Flowers for Algernon is another novel which offers just as much to non sci-fi fans as it does to genre devotees. Whatever branch of literature you prefer, Flowers for Algernon is worth reading. Sure, the novel is a bit flabby around the middle and the romantic element fails to convince, but these are quibbles in an otherwise great novel.