Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Flowers for Algernon book cover
Rating 9.1/10
Here's another mouse trying to find the meaning of life

I’m honestly amazed I never heard of Flowers for Algernon earlier, especially considering the work I did in ethics regarding people with learning disabilities. Reading through one of the collections of Nebula Award winners, I ran across Daniel Keyes on account of how he came to write the story, the ideas he had and how Charlie himself was inspired by a boy in a special education class Keyes taught; and I knew it was a book I had to read.

Keyes book has one of those premises which is both so simple it’s amazing that nobody thought of it before, and yet so profound you could write entire treatises about it. Charlie Gordon is a man with an IQ of 68 who works as a cleaner at a New York bakery. He’s sweet natured and simple, he likes to make people laugh, but is often unaware of the mockery of those around him. The one thing Charlie wants above all others is to be smart, indeed he regularly attends an adult education class taught by the kindly Alice Kinnian, and has struggled to learn how to read and write. When two scientists at Beacon university, Dr. Strauss and Professor Nemur are developing experimental surgery to increase people’s intelligence, Alice selects Charlie to be their first human subject due to his overwhelming desire to learn. The technique has already been tried on a mouse named Algernon, and has been successful, and sure enough, like Algernon, Charlie’s intelligence begins to increase. As Charlie grapples with his rising brain power however, he soon starts to realise that being “smart” is not quite all he hoped it would be. He soon begins to recover memories of an abusive childhood and becomes aware of how others around him treat him, and what’s more, finds himself confronted with feelings for Alice he’s not emotionally prepared to deal with. Eventually, as Charlie’s intellect approaches genius status he begins to realise a far more terrible truth, that this increase in intelligence is only temporary, that eventually both he, and Algernon are doomed to regress back to where they came from.

The book is told in first person through Charlie’s reports, and as the book began with Charlie’s sweetly simple perspective; replete with misspellings and misconceptions, I was not sure what to think. There is a faux mystique which some writers have about learning disabled people, a Tiny Tim sentimentality which portrays anyone with learning disabilities as a fount of ever flowing cuteness rather than a fully realised person in their own right. Yet, Keyes honestly surprised me here. Shortly after Charlie’s operation, as he begins remembering his childhood, we start to realise that much of what Charlie feels, from his intensive desire to be smart, to his desire to please others, even his extreme genuphobia, (fear of sex), does not simply represent a collection of innocent clichés put together as a character, but are a direct result of Charlie’s own history. Indeed, I loved the way that all through the book, Charlie’s need to constantly confront his own past and reveal more about where he came from, contrasts starkly with his journey into intellectual superiority and his ever more dizzying powers of intelligence.

Yet, just as Keyes subverts the now still sadly standard picture of the sweetly naïve idiot when Charlie is at his lowest intellectual level, so he subverts the equally common idea that a super genius mind would be some sort of divinely tolerant superbeing (an idea rather prevalent in science fiction). Slowly, over the course of the book Charlie’s reverence for learning and for Straus and Nemur fades until he begins to first realise not only that they are just men themselves, but to start to feel contempt for them. Some of this contempt is reasonably justified, observations that academics are far too often specialised into only one field and thus rarely communicate with others outside it, some of this contempt springs from Charlie’s realisation that he is still essentially a laboratory animal not too different from Algernon, whilst some is down to plane arrogance.

One thing I absolutely applaud Keyes for, is the way he changes style throughout the book. Whilst everything happens from Charlie’s perspective, Charlie changes so rapidly and his attitudes and emotions are so real, Keyes language, style and tone alter on a regular basis. Whilst Charlie’s recounting of third person dream sequences featuring his younger, still intellectually disabled self appears a bit divisive, at the same time it both keeps us remembering just where Charlie came from, and also highlights the fantastic ways Keyes relays Charlie’s experiences. Charlie’s misunderstandings, the ways others in turn misunderstand his own perceptions and the things he could be able to do, and of course his truly horrible experiences at the hands of his mother and sister, as well as unpleasant children at school, all are revelations both to us, and to Charlie, and written with a sympathy and pathos which is nothing short of amazing.

I find Keyes idea that Charlie’s lack of intellect also means an almost total lack of memory rather less convincing, and not supported by the experiences of learning disabled people I’ve met myself, albeit I’ll forgive Keyes slightly on this since it definitely contributes to Charlie as a character and to the overall structure of the story.

Keyes navigates Charlie’s changing relations extremely well, albeit most of these are fairly grim. For example, as the book begins Charlie’s co-workers at the bakery treat him as an object of mockery, but also with a proprietary sort of camaraderie, which slowly fades as Charlie’s intellect surpasses them, and despite a desire for learning and intelligent companions, Charlie finds it deeply hard to make friends, or even to recognize potential friends; such as Dr. Straus, good hearted graduate student Burt Selden (possibly named as a nod to Isaac Asimov, who presented Keyes’ Hugo award).

Another major character is Algernon himself. We see Charlie’s attitude to Algernon change, going from rivalry, when the hyper intelligent mouse was defeating him at maze exercises, to admiration, to fellow feeling. Indeed, even though Algernon’s chief function in the plot is to act as a prophet of doom for Charlie’s own rise and fall, Keyes is careful enough to give us sufficient information about Algernon’s own actions to interpret what he’s feeling, such as his love of challenges, his frustration when his intelligence is starting to wane, or his reaction to an ordinary female mouse, and thus spare some sympathy for Algernon in his own right.

It’s not just Algernon who finds a partner however. Romantically, Keyes provides probably the single best description of male genuphobia I’ve ever read, including Charlie’s intensive fear of harming Alice by touching her, and his terror that she might recoil from him, even his intensive awareness of her presence in harmless situations when they’re together and his nervousness about how she will interpret his actions, which makes the moments when they drift apart due to Charlie’s increasingly cynical intellectual growth all the more heart-breaking.

With a later relationship Charlie has, Keyes is similarly careful, indeed where it would’ve been easy to turn the casual, free spirited sexually promiscuous woman Charlie sleeps with into a selfish coquette, Keyes makes her scatty and likable, albeit obviously someone with her own problems, indeed she contrasts starkly against an actual sexual predator whom Charlie runs into earlier in the book.

The one minor problem I had with the book in terms of character and relations, is that some aspects feel a little dated, and not just due to the lack of mobile phones etc. There is an overwhelming faith in psychology generally, and more specifically in psychoanalysis, though thankfully Keyes avoids things becoming too Freudian. Also a rather over optimistic belief in the power of subliminal sleep teaching; just as in Huxley’s Brave New World. Whilst sadly many of the attitudes of the general public, and the abuse and mistreatment Charlie suffers do still occur, the institutionalisation of learning disabled people is obviously far less common today. What I found a bit harder to deal with were some of Alice’s attitudes, indeed though initially she wants her relationship with Charlie to remain professional, there seemed to simply come a tipping point when Charlie decided (despite his genuphobia), that Alice was “ready” to sleep with him, after which he took the initiative, only to be stopped by his own past. I was disappointed, both that Alice didn’t try to be a bit more active in helping Charlie, and that after this point Alice slightly faded as a character in her own right. Indeed, other than one minor disagreement when Charlie’s intellect is making Alice feel stupid by contrast, Alice remained a little too passive much of the time, especially towards the end when she was taking care of Charlie, including taking a lot of his bad attitudes a little too uncomplainingly. Whether this was a slightly traditional gender depiction, or just the fact that since we see matters from Charlie’s perspective, Alice's behaviour is obviously cast in an especially rosy light, I don’t know. I will also admit I sighed rather heavily at one occasion when, during a beautifully poetic passage Charlie muses on how “women give,” and “men take,” just as I did during another intensively described vision Charlie has of the experience of birth, although in both of these instances Keyes slightly out of place poetry more than compensated.

The book is also unashamedly, almost universally dark. Though there are some beautifully described triumphs, such as Charlie’s first epiphany about the true nature of punctuation, and his joy at learning for the first time, not only do we always know these victories will be ultimately pyric, but also they’re always undercut by something unpleasant, like another memory of Charlie’s abuse. Neither do things get better as the book continues, indeed the way Charlie’s initial excitement and reverence for learning turns slowly to contempt and cynicism is downright miserable. There were some instances in which I thought Keyes perhaps did over do the darkness a little, for example, during Charlie’s flashbacks he recalls how his father was far more accepting of his disabilities, and yet when he meets his father in the present, he never tells him who he is. Likewise, whilst Keyes shows Charlie’s sister Nora grows up from the total brat she was, and becomes a rather nice lady who regrets her childhood treatment of her brother, we don’t really see much of her.

That being said, Keyes does include some moments of humour, both at the beginning with Charlie’s honest mistakes about life and punctuation and the nature of psychological tests, and later with character interactions, especially concerning Algernon. Indeed, one sequence in which Charlie releases Algernon in a scientific conference was particularly hilarious, albeit I suspect fewer women these days would be likely to stand on chairs and scream!

I did appreciate the way that Keyes showed an institution for learning disabled people; albeit one of a kind we don’t likely have anymore, and didn’t depict it as either an ever caring haven of niceness, or a completely regimented place where unwanted people are forgotten, though the thought of Charlie ending up there is not a pleasant one.

The book’s ending is simply tragic. Apparently, when Keyes presented the Hugo winning novella to his agent and editor, both hated the idea of the story being a tragedy, and told him to rewrite it so that Charlie remained a genius, married Alice and lived happily ever after. Keyes thankfully didn’t take that advice, indeed I doubt Flowers for Algernon would be quite as well known or successful if he had. I do think however, Keyes is perhaps a little guilty of going too far in the other direction.

Charlie does not merely regress intellectually, but becomes a far less likable person on the way down. Where he’d previously failed to recognize the feelings of others around him, now he becomes apathetic, reclusive and occasionally just plain nasty. Where he’d previously been genophobic, now he ogles girly pictures and watches a woman across the road undressing for her bath. In particular, the way he treats Alice is just hateful, even when she’s patiently caring for him, and to say that the culmination of this relationship, a relationship which has at times been timid, fraught and profoundly beautiful, is Charlie’s screaming at her to get out before forgetting her entirely as his intellect atrophies, the whole thing just felt hollow. Given that learning disabled people can form extremely strong emotional attachments, this forgetting of Alice after ending their relationship so badly seemed both unnecessary and gratuitous to me. Indeed, in an earlier draught Keyes included a coda, in which Alice and Dr. Straus read Charlie’s reports and a tearful Alice decides she’s going to go and find Charlie, and I’m rather sorry this coda got missed out.

It’s not hard to see why Flowers for Algernon is counted as a classic. Complex characters (despite feeling a little dated in places), a writing style that gives an insight into a rapidly changing protagonist and a truly unique story. I won't say it is a pleasant book to read, indeed Keyes intention here was to write a tragedy and if anything he succeeded a little too well. That being said, not every reading experience has to be comfortable, or have a happy ending in order to be worthwhile, and Charlie’s odyssey, with its absolute highs and lows; tragic though it is, is still definitely one it's worth following.

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