Wednesday, March 9, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Last year, I failed to complete the Back-to-the-Classics challenge and I’m still beating myself up over it. I was determined to do better this year. Twelve books. . .one a month, that should be easy. Then February got away from me.

But I jumped in to get a book read and maybe I’ll even get two done in March.

My science fiction classic is Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes. In this well-known and well-loved novel, Charlie Gordon, a gentle man with a low I.Q. but a strong determination to get smarter so that people will like him more, is offered an opportunity to do just that. Neuroscientists at a nearby New York research hospital have been testing mice, using an experimental brain surgery to increase intelligence. The most recent mouse, Algernon, has shown remarkable lasting gains in ability (running mazes to find a food reward) and the researchers believe the time has come to test the procedure on a human subject.

Charlie has been attending "the Beekman School for retarded adults," where he is taught by a compassionate young woman named Harriet Kinnians. She recommended Charlie for the experiment because of his unique motivation. And Charlie is chosen.

The novel is written in journal style, with Charlie recording his thoughts and actions, later his dreams and recollections, in a series of Progress Reports for the researchers. At first, the surgery seems to have little effect. But slowly, and then with remarkable rapidity, Charlie’s intelligence grows. Exponentially. He rapidly surpasses the brain researchers and the professors at the university. As a result, he grows cynical and arrogant. At the same time, his intelligence vastly exceeds his emotional maturity. He struggles to understand his feelings towards people, particularly Harriet. Moreover, he recognizes that the people he once considered his friends were not. They kept him around as a buffoon, and laughed at him not with him. As he recalls and understands more about his childhood, he realizes just how horribly his parents (particularly his mother) and his sister treated him.

As confused and isolated as Charlie is, he does cherish his new brilliance. So he is horrified, as is the reader, when he begins to witness Algernon’s decline. It seems the effects of the surgery were not permanent. What does Charlie’s future hold?

This is a sad, insightful, beautiful book. It explores the way society treats those who are mentally challenged. There are parallels to the fear and anger of those who are experiencing dementia. And it challenges ideas of intelligence and genius. Although initially published in 1966 (satisfying the 50 year mark for the classics challenge) the book does not seem dated as some older science fiction does. This book had been on my should-read list for a long time, and it was as rewarding a read as I’d hoped.