Warning – potential minor spoilers ahead…
The world is a strange place for 32-year old Charlie Gordon. Armed with a mere 68 I.Q. and an overly trusting disposition he’s a child trying to make his way in a world of men. Rejected by an uncaring mother and left under the care of his father’s friend Herman he spends his days working at a bakery. His colleagues are his friends, although he is blissfully unaware that more often than not he exists purely as a butt to their jokes. However, a change is on the horizon. A pair of scientists at a nearby university have been experimenting on raising the intelligence of animals, chief among them a mouse named Algernon, and are ready to move to the next step; human subjects. Charlie fits the bill perfectly and his world will never be the same again.
Thus begins Flowers For Algernon, the classic sci-fi masterpiece by author Daniel Keyes who sadly passed away last week. It seemed a fitting time to revisit a work I have loved since first reading it, one which never fails to bring me to the edge of tears by its conclusion. Although nominally a science fiction novel it is very much a human story, the tale of an innocent human being brought out of the darkness he inhabits into a word of light, only to find that world receding from his grasp before he can truly comprehend its beauty and workings.
The book takes the form of a series of diary entries, Charlie’s progress reports to the team carrying out and monitoring the experiment. Initially these veer between charmingly inept and annoyingly clunky. Charlie simply does not possess the ability to make sense of the world around him, shrouded in a cloak of gullibility and an aching desire to please all those around him. However as the experiment takes effect the prose gradually shifts into something closer to normal speech and before long he is writing with the flair of an accomplished author and throwing around concepts his former self couldn’t have pronounced, let alone mastered.
Charlie’s awakening is a mixed blessing. Once the wool is lifted from his eyes he’s finally free to explore the world, to live the life forever denied to him by his genes. He begins to explore languages, arts, science and maths to incredible levels, joining the experts in each field and bewildered as to why nobody else seems to be as much of a polymath as he is. However, as he soars in these intellectual heights his awareness of the world around him is matched by his new-found awareness of himself and how he has been treated by others throughout his life, from his family and friends to the scientists who purport to help him but apparently see him as little more than an oversized Algernon. This conflict is the heart of the novel and makes the closing third of the book all the more heartbreaking.
Flowers For Algernon is in its concept and structure something of a unique creature although I can’t review it without mentioning the one book which I deem to be its soulmate in many ways. Jack London’s Martin Eden tells a similar story from a slightly different angle; Martin is a poor labourer denied a decent education who tires of his exclusion from the delights of the world and chooses to educate himself, to elevate himself above his station and beyond the intellectual reaches of even those he wishes to emulate. However he soon realises that try as he might he will never fit in, he will always be an oddity, a serf savant, and London draws events inexorably towards a similarly tragic conclusion. Of course Martin differs from Charlie in that his ascension comes entirely from his own efforts, having at least the mental capacity to pull himself up by his bootstraps. Aside from that the two novels share some striking thematic similarities, and now I’ve mentioned it I’ll have to re-read this one too.
Anyway, I can’t say enough positive things about Flowers For Algernon, despite its downbeat final act. It’s the kind of book you’ll want to tell everyone about, the kind that has yo gawking in disbelief when someone tell you they haven’t read it. As clichéd as it sounds it’s as much a journey and an experience as it is a novel and it’s nigh impossible to imagine someone not absolutely loving it. Just be prepared for the heartbreak. And when it strikes remember that no matter how hard it hits you, you will read it again,