Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Flowers for Algernon is one of those books I have trouble reviewing. It impacted me in such a way that I'm not sure words on a screen will do justice to the magnificence of this novel. This review will take two approaches: 1) The literary merit of the writing and the book and 2) The aftermath of understanding the context of and complications of a scientific approach to playing God. A heavy topic.
First the book:
Flowers for Algernon follows the life of a developmentally disable man named Charlie Gordon. At thirty-two years old, Charlie works as a janitor (essentially) in a butcher shop owned by a friend of his father. He promised Charlie's dad he'd always look after him. Charlie goes to night school and has a great desire to learn to read and write. He is a bit of an anomaly amongst his peers in his desire to learn and retain information. A team of scientist has sought out Charlie on the recommendation of his night school teacher, Ms. Alice Kinnian, as a man capable of undergoing a surgical procedure that will greatly boost his mental capabilities - and if successful, Charlie will no longer be mentally retarded. This procedure had already been performed on Algernon, the laboratory mouse, with marked results. Charlie will be the first human being to undergo the procedure.
To determine the success or failure of Charlie's journey, he is asked to record his daily activities in a journal. These are noted in the book as a series of progress reports. He documents everything that happens to him and his writing goes from childlike to an impressive genius level quickly. Yet, as Charlie's intelligence changes, the reader is exposed to Charlie's understanding of his mental state, how others treated him as a result, horrible flashbacks to his childhood, and extensive pain and suffering as Charlie realizes the extent of his life. This harrowing journey makes Charlie's jump in intelligence more of a penance than a pleasure. Charlie can now access former events that shaped his life and view relationships (both friends and familial) for what they were, or in most cases: weren't. He struggles to build new relationships because he lacks the social norms that the surgery could neither correct nor anticipate as its original subject was mouse not manipulated by confines of human interaction. In the end, Charlie's intelligence leads him to discover the "fatal flaw" in the entire procedure, and as his newfound intelligence fades he is recommitted to a life alone. One of the hardest parts of the novel is watching the decline of Algernon knowing full well Charlie is right behind him.
The book is crafted using a rather sophisticated writing technique of childlike prose increasing over the course of the text to an astuteness known only to a select few. Keyes does a beautiful job incorporating the change in the writing as a true progression of the procedure for Charlie. He cleverly captures the overall theme of "Man Playing God" in a way that hits at both the pathos and logos part of the reader making this book top notch on multiple levels. The characters, particularly Charlie, feel real and fully developed connecting to the reader in such a way as to leave the reader entirely submerged gasping for air as Charlie grows, changes, develops, and regresses. Well-written. Clever. Timeless.
I was deeply disturbed by this novel despite its well-written approach. The travel of Charlie's development and subsequent regression spans approximately nine months - that of the human gestation period (March to November). This is quite intentional, I know. The symbolic nature of his journey beginning in Spring when life is new and ending in Fall, when the world starts to drop its leaves plays into the context of my struggles with the book. In a "nut-shell" this novel broke my heart, mostly because at the end of his horrific 9-month journey, there was no "new" Charlie. He didn't enjoy the fruit of labors so emphasized in the culmination of life - his just ends. It's equivalent to the idea of a still-born babe. This novels leaves the reader with so many unanswered questions that only back up the notion that man should not interfere with God's greater plan. Does Charlie regret his ascent and descent of retardation to genius to lagging behind? Yet on the flip side of that, does a partially successfully experiment with a dire outcome, but some progress, mean a moratorium should be called on the development of the technique? If man can reverse the tragedy of feeble-mindedness without substandard results, should we as a society press on? Charlie's journey suggests we should not, but there's the lingering question of "but maybe?" Even though Charlie tells Alice he doesn't regret the time he's involved in the enterprise, as the reader I regretted it for him. He says at one time "Im glad I got a second chanse in life . . . because I lernd alot of things that I never even new were in this werld and Im grateful I saw it all even for a littel bit." He also states that he's probably the first "dumb persen in the world who found out some thing importent for siense." Yet in a progress report before his decline he notes that, "intelligence and education that hasn't been tempered by human affection isn't worth a damn." Juxtaposition between when he "knows" and when he "doesn't know."
Overall, this novel is one I believe people should read because I think the impact it leaves is greater than anything I can say here - but be aware...the questions that will linger in your mind don't go away. The pain you feel for Charlie will haunt you long after the end of the book.
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