Last autumn, I ‘fessed up that I rarely read SF classics. Looking at “scifi novels every fan must read” lists, I’m a very bad SF fan indeed. This year I made a half-hearted effort to mend my ways (I haven’t exactly let them dominate my reading), but Sci Fi Month was my inspiration to tackle a giant.
Flowers for Algernon is one of those rare beasts: a story that won awards in both its original short story form and the subsequent novelisation. It’s also one of those lucky books that finds itself regularly banned (in the US) because – gasp – it features swearing and sexual frustration.
Part of the charm – and the agony – of reading Flowers is the format: it’s told in a series of progress reports written by Charlie Gordon, a young man with learning disabilities, who has agreed to be the test subject in a ground-breaking experiment to enhance IQ through surgical intervention. The early reports are repetitive, creatively spelled and very literal (in the second, Charlie agonises at the thought he may be kicked off the program after he sees a Rorschach test as just spilled ink); but they slowly grow in length and confidence as the effects of the operation and subsequent therapy begin to take hold.
Charlie is initially oblivious to the changes. He just wants to learn to read, driven by a faint memory of his mother and a desire to keep up with his friends. He has no perception of how badly these ‘friends’ treat him. Limited by his memory and cognitive abilities, Charlie takes everything at face value; he’s a ripe target for mockery and bullying.
But the experiment is a success, setting the stage for a tragedy on multiple levels. Newly aware of how he has been perceived and treated, Charlie struggles to come to terms with suppressed memories of lifelong abuse, and with feelings that he’s never previously had to wrestle with (including an intense attraction to his teacher Miss Kinnian, who taught him to read and recommended him to the program). His progress begins to affect his job, his new intelligence at first helping him get ahead, but ultimately creating a rift between him and his co-workers as he becomes aware of petty fraud and they grow increasingly intimidated by him.
As his IQ continues to grow, he devours information at a rate of knots, able to match – and even exceed – the specialists running the program in their own areas of expertise. He grows increasingly frustrated with them for their narrow point of view and for the demeaning remarks that make it clear they didn’t consider him fully human before the experiment began. Ultimately, Charlie is almost entirely isolated, desperate to connect emotionally but unable to lay the past to rest or stop himself from patronising those around him.
It’s a complex, emotionally draining read – and that’s before you get to the third act. Keyes looks at socially acceptable prejudice, the impact of psychological abuse, the inevitable distress caused by rapid changes in perspective and whether intellect is ultimately an obstacle to happiness (arguably the happiest person we meet is Fay, Charlie’s carefree neighbour who lives hand to mouth from dance hall to dance hall, and whose intellectually undemanding company he can enjoy because she – as he once did – takes everything at face value). It – inevitably – has a few elements that I am dissatisfied with (I struggle to believe SPOILER (mouse over to read)that Alice would fall in love with Charlie), but I appreciated how these contributed to the broader context.
I won’t talk about the final act except to say that it’s masterfully executed. This is a novel about the human condition – what makes us who we are – and asks difficult questions; it’s not a casual read, but it is a rewarding one – and I highly recommend it.
SPOILER (mouse over to read): If you’ve lost someone to Alzheimer’s, the final act will be tough.