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Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes

May 17, 2011

Strikingly original.

I’ve never read anything quite like it. Science Fiction that is totally believable, completely engrossing. Set in a world that I understand and can somehow relate to – a world that, unfortunately, seems just as real now as it would have 50 years ago when the novel was first published.

What works most for Flowers for Algernon, though, is that you really get into the protagonist’s head. His name is Charlie. He was born a little slow – learning disabilities transferring to social disabilities. And in his older age he is used in an experiment to make him truly brilliant – one of the smartest men on the planet. And the world is not ready for him – he is too brilliant for them. Neither is he ready for the world – it is too unfamiliar to him.

The novel is written as a collection of progress reports that Charlie is expected to complete as documentation for his experiment. This approach really allows you to fall for Charlie; you care about his development, and the discoveries that he makes about how people have treated him throughout his life, and you sympathize with his frustrations as a genius. He never feels as though anybody is treating him as a human, but merely as an experiment – a guinea pig.

Indeed, his only real friendship is with a fellow Guinea Pig – a rat named Algernon. Algernon was treated with the same experiment as Charlie, and initially Algernon’s intelligence is well beyond that of Charlie. It is quite interesting to see this connection to the other guinea pig – his only compatriot in the test tube.

What really works for Daniel Keyes in this book is the character. You care for Charlie more than you have cared for most other characters you have read about. Part of this is the personal nature of the writing structure – we are reading his most intimate, and sometimes inappropriate, feelings and ideas. And you watch him blossom into a dark and depressed flower incapable of trusting anybody that surrounds him, except for Algernon.

This book did two things for me that are quite rare. The first was that it made me angry. About a quarter of the way through the novel, Charlie begins to remember his past, and moments when his coworkers and his family treated him poorly. You hear these stories, and you are angry. Anger – a feeling I have not felt since reading Dave Eggers’ What is the What.

The second was that it got me excited to read about Charlie. There was a point, about three quarters of the way through the novel, when I was driving home and I was thinking about Charlie. I was worried about him. I wanted him to be ok – I didn’t want to witness his demise. What was happening was heartbreaking – what was bound to happen was heartbreaking.

A note about the writing style. This novel was originally written as a short story, and then expanded to include more characters and a prolonged story. You rarely get the sense that this transformation was a challenge for Keyes. The writing is mostly seamless, mostly believable. But it is a testament to the transformation that the English language was going through in the 1950s and 60s – this book does not feel contemporary even if the world that it produces can be mistaken as such.

June 24 – Today I went on a strange kind of anti-intellectual binge. If I had dared to, I would have gotten drunk, but after the experience with Fay, I knew it would be dangerous. So, instead, I went to Times Square, from movie house to movie house, immersing myself in westerns and horror movies – the way I used to. Each time, sitting through the picture, I would find myself whipped with guilt. I’d walk out in the middle of the picture and wander into another one. I told myself I was looking for something in the make-believe screen world that was missing from my new life.

Then, in a sudden intuition, right outside the Keno Amusement Center, I knew it wasn’t the movies I wanted, but the audiences. I wanted to be with the people around me in he darkness.

The language is not flowery, it is not poetic. It is not stream of consciousness, or even a false steam of consciousness. It feels completely planned out – it is planned out and edited. Not a bad thing, but something I noticed. And it suits the character of the narrator and of the novel – it is both personal and impersonal. The language that a high academic may use to talk about themselves, no?

I made the comment in my last post that this would be a more valuable novel than Tortilla Flats in high school curriculum. I stand by that. Even without having read Tortilla Flats. It is a novel that I recommend to everybody. Captivating, though not perfect. Original, though not contemporary. A nice diversion, and a valid awareness-raising novel.

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