Every now and then a book will take you completely by surprise. It will sweep you off your feet; your need to keep reading will border on an unhealthy obsession, and your emotional reactions to fictional occurrences will be questionable to say the least. Finding a book that you love this much, especially if it grips you completely from the word go, is thoroughly exciting, rewarding, and terrifying. Terrifying, you ask? Absolutely. What if you will never enjoy a book this much again? You will never be able to discover that book again (come on, who wouldn’t want to be able to go back and watch Star Wars for the first time again?!). And for writers, when you find a book that you truly love, it’s inevitable that you begin to wallow in self-pity, thinking ‘Why should I bother when I’m never going to be able to write anything as good as this?’
A few weeks ago I was browsing in a book store, something I do shamefully little of in this Amazon-driven world. Having recently discovered Orion’s Gollancz imprint’s SF Masterworks series, I found myself drawn to any book with that distinctive yellow-white spine. I had never heard of Daniel Keyes before, but I picked up a book called Flowers for Algernon and read the blurb. I was instantly hooked.
Charlie Gordon has an IQ of 68. He works hard at his day job, proud of being able to live independently, taking care of himself, but he wants more. Charlie is determined to learn to read and write, so that he can be ‘normal’ – something he believes will help people like and respect him.
His teacher is impressed with his ability to learn and his motivation. She nominates him for an experiment taking place at the local university. Dr Nemur and Dr Strauss have been working on a theory of improving intellectual capacity, something that has been tested and proven on a very special mouse, Algernon. Charlie is to be the first human subject of their experiments.
Charlie’s intelligence following the operation increases at an astronomical rate, but the price of greater worldly awareness comes with a price. He learns that the world isn’t as kind as he once thought, and the people he counted as friends were often laughing at his expense. His rapid intellectual growth leaves his emotional development lagging behind. He has no experience of women, affection, jealousy, or other complex emotional states that come hand in hand with self-awareness. Where his low intelligence once cut him off from the world, Charlie finds his high IQ does the same, and he wonders if he will ever be able to relate to others.
With his new academic abilities, Charlie discovers a flaw in the experiment. His heightened intelligence will be short-lived unless he can solve the problem before he returns to his intellectually disabled former self.
The science fiction factor
From attending many writing workshops, conferences, etc, I have noticed a lot of talk from the industry about finding that realist or genre novel with a supernatural/SFF twist. Reading Flowers for Algernon made me wonder why it isn’t a book I’d heard of before and why it wasn’t being marketed more heavily to fans of similar popular modern books. When it comes down to it, there’s not all that much that makes this novel ‘science fiction’. If we take the name of the genre literally, it is true that the ‘science’ element of it is completely fictional. However, it isn’t beyond the realm of possibilities (nor would it have necessarily been at the time of publication, 1966, either). I we look at science fiction as being more appropriately labelled ‘speculative fiction’, it makes more sense.
I am a science fiction (SFF/speculative fiction) fan. But this book should be marketed more widely than to those of us who like reading about the completely fanciful. It is a novel of the human experience: a coming of age tale for adult readers and a philosophical exploration of what it means to be alive. In parts, I felt like I was back at university, reading Sartre and struggling over what it means ‘to be’, and yet it never feels stuffy, overdone, or dull. The novel carries on at a rollicking speed, through the strength of Charlie’s characterization.
A universally affecting premise
‘… I see now that the path I choose through that maze makes me what I am. I am not only a thing, but also a way of being – one of many ways – and knowing the paths I have followed and the ones left to take will help me understand what I am becoming.’
The themes present in Flowers of Algernon are almost universally understandable. I doubt there’s ever been anyone who never felt a desire to better themselves, be it intellectually, physically, or emotionally. Charlie’s drive to be ‘normal’, followed by a desire to make his mark on the world, are relevant to both teens and adults alike.
The potentially tricky subject matter of retardation is dealt with respectfully. The novel is told from Charlie’s perspective, providing a difficult first person narrative situation, where the character’s intelligence and personality changes dramatically over the course of the book. As the novel opens, Charlie can barely spell, he has no understanding of punctuation, and is able to report on events without understanding them. There is a lot of scope for this type of narration to become naff or soppy, but Keyes executes it with skill, bringing to mind Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. The reader is pulled in very quickly, sympathizing with Charlie without being prompted into patronizing him. As the narrative progresses, the prose style changes subtly. Seeing the first few pages, I worried that the changes might be done to heavy handedly, but I was pleasantly surprised. The changes feel normal, as though the style were remaining constant. By the time Charlie’s intelligence had improved significantly, I barely realized the changes in his diction (after a point), and yet it is there.
While the use of language is impressive, it is Charlie’s emotional depiction that is truly arresting. For a situation so completely extraordinary, his experience of it couldn’t feel more real. He struggles with new emotional complexities far more than he does with simply academic problems, something which is often lost on those firmly locked into academic life. Emotions and relationships are far harder to come to grips with given their potential for randomness. Some patterns may be applied at a high level, but the day-to-day events are far more unpredictable. Even with all of Charlie’s mental faculties, he is unable to process problems that many of us face daily. Just as he should not feel ashamed at these shortcomings, neither should we.
This book affected me in ways few books have. I put it up there with Catch-22, The Quiet American, As I Lay Dying, and 1984. Unfortunately, it seems to be a book that is overlooked by many. From what I can tell, some middle schools do include it on the reading list, but it is sadly forgotten by many. Even if you aren’t generally a science fiction fan, I beg you to overlook the bookshop category and give this book a try.
If you are looking for a cliff notes version of the book, MC Lars (ft. Random) condensed the gist of the book into a single song. And the song’s pretty awesome…
Verdict: Brilliant novel of human experience. Everyone should read this book.