Monday, 10 May 2021

Twenty-one in '21: Flowers for Algernon

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading twenty one books in 2021. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

5/21: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

The blurb: The classic novel about a daring experiment in human intelligence Charlie Gordon, IQ 68, is a floor sweeper and the gentle butt of everyone's jokes - until an experiment in the enhancement of human intelligence turns him into a genius. But then Algernon, the mouse whose triumphal experimental tranformation preceded his, fades and dies, and Charlie has to face the possibility that his salvation was only temporary.

The review: Brooklyn-born Daniel Keyes was a merchant sailor before finding his calling as a university lecturer and, eventually, professor or creative writing. He wrote four novels, apparently, but Flowers for Algernon is far and away the best known. Originally a Hugo Award-winning short story, Keyes expanded it to a novel whereupon that won the Nebula Award. He also adapted it for a 1968 film, Charly, which landed an Oscar for its lead actor but - spoiler alert - the film has not aged as well as the book. Oh, and it also got the TV movie treatment, twenty odd years ago, and that starred Matthew Modine and is well reviewed, so I'll be taking a look at that when time allows.

So what of the book? Well, the Hugo and Nebula awards should be telling you this is a science-fiction story, and it is... but it's a question-raising morality play too. What is more important, this novel asks, to have a brain or to have a heart? To care or to be aware? And, less directly but equally effectively, whether mankind should play god, in the grand tradition of everything from Frankenstein to Jurassic Park and a whole lot more besides. In this case, and to paraphrase, the scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could turn Charlie into a genius, they didn't stop to think if they should.

It's also a heartbreakingly sad novel too. Protagonist Charlie leads a simple but happy life but, as his intelligence grows, he realises that his life has not been, and is not, happy - that people he thought were his friends were actually just laughing at him behind his back. Also, as he gets smarter Charlie is able, for the first time, to examine and understand the troubled family history that saw his parents abandon him. And, most painfully, as he grows he realises that he can love, but cannot give himself over to that love until it's too late - his spiralling IQ means that he has left his sweetheart behind intellectually.

The real kicker comes in the book's final third, and is hinted at in the blurb. It's a hard read and left me wondering whether it is better to have been smart and lost that, than never to have been smart at all; it also left me wondering, not for the first time, what I would want to happen to me in the event of suffering a traumatic brain injury, or developing some form of dementia. To know, to be all too aware you are losing your mental prowess must be terrible.

There are also some neat writing tricks at play here from Keyes. The novel is written in Charlie's first-person narrative as a series of progress reports that he keeps as part of the study, and Keyes has great fun with this, varying his protagonist's writing style subtly yet progressively to demonstrate a growing intelligence. And having digested Charlie's linguistic up-turn at the start of the novel, this reader was hyper-attuned to subsequent variations; it was all the more saddening to see the first signs of deterioration creep into Charlie's writing (apostrophes were the first thing to go) because you know what had gone into the intial improvement. Watching a tower crumble is bad, but doubly so if you had invested in it from the outset.

There's also another theme to be discussed here, I think, about the burden of intelligence, the separation it can cause, the loneliness. Which would you choose: to be a sad genius or a happy imbecile?

The bottom line: don't be put off by the SF tag; this is a gripping, emotional read that raises a lot of questions and lingers long in the mind; only deprived a full complement of stars by a slight narrative lag in the middle third.

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★★☆


  1. Excellent novel, and - like you say - one that lingers in the mind. I lent my copy (along with Ishiguro's Remains of the Day) to a friend and never got them back - which I take as a measure of the quality of both books!