Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon is one of those books I happened to stumble upon and decided to give a shot. Wedged between two other books purchased that day, I didn’t even open it until a few days later. But when I did, I didn’t close it until the last page. (Slight spoilers ahead).
If you haven’t read it yet, Flowers for Algernon is a classic masterwork. The story is about Charlie Gordon, a below-average intelligent man, who is the first human subject for an experimental surgical procedure designed to improve intelligence. Preceded by the successful surgery on a laboratory mouse, the eponymous Algernon, Charlie’s intervention is successful, and his intelligence begins to rise.
The story unfolds through diary entries written by Charlie. We see how his grammar and spelling improves, how he becomes capable of complex thinking and expressing himself clearly, both on the page and to others. We see how his relationships grow from simple to difficult – first as he discovers slights and jokes at his expense that he previously had not had the capacity to spot, and second as he inevitably surpasses those around him, from his beloved teacher Alice Kinnian to the ambitious research lead Dr Nemur. His ability to form meaningful relationships suffers from the widening gap in intelligence between himself and those of a normal intellect, a cruel mirror of his former life. And then we observe how he regresses, just as Algernon did. From his scientific prowess and rich vocabulary down to his literacy – it is all stripped away. And throughout this process, we observe his grief and despair at the loss of his mind, followed by the inevitable isolation as a man who remember his former self but knows that it is hopelessly out of reach.
I’m normally not too fond of the epistolary form, but in this case I think it is perfect. It allows Keyes to present both the rise and descent of Charlie’s intelligence directly, and the result is almost painfully personal.
The novel does what most great sci-fi does: it uses the genre to debate current problems. Sci-fi has a long and illustrious history of social commentary, emphasised by its larger-than-life settings. You can strip human society bare when extrapolating using aliens, spaceships or futuristic drugs. In Flowers for Algernon, we are treated to the question of intelligence versus emotion, to the role of intellect in human relationships, and perhaps more importantly, to the mistreatment of those with a mental disability. Keyes wrote the original short story (which was given a Hugo award and later developed into the more familiar novel) against the backdrop of his own work teaching English to students with special needs.
Flowers for Algernon is the kind of book that works perfectly, from start to finish, with a story so clear it seems inevitable that it was written. It is perhaps the most bitter-sweet sci-fi book I’ve ever had the pleasure to read, and it left me awed and heartbroken at the same time. In Charlie Gordon’s own final words:
“PS please if you get a chanse put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the bak yard.”