Flowers for Algernon - Daniel Keyes

Flowers for Algernon - Daniel Keyes

You've probably heard of Flowers for Algernon. It's an SF classic. It gets read in schools. People discuss it in Deep and Meaningful ways. It's one of those books.

 

It's the story of Charlie Gordon, IQ 68, bakery sweeper, butt of all the jokes, innocent, kind, smiling, eager to learn. His intelligence is boosted via an experimental surgical procedure, but as he begins to learn about the world his illusions, his innocence and his kindness come under stress.

 

It's a good book. It really is. Objectively, it's thoughtful, intelligent, ambitious and well-written. The writing style deserves some mention: it's written from Charlie's POV, and as his intelligence increases so does the quality of the prose. So we move from sentences like

He sed sit down Charlie and make yourself cunfortible and rilax

 

to

I soak it up into my pores during the day, and at night - in the moments before I pass off into sleep - ideas explode into my head like fireworks.

It's done incrementally, and very cleverly, so that, like Charlie himself, you almost don't realise the improvement until you go back and look at the earlier chapters. I appreciate the subtlety of this, and I appreciate its pathos. (And, my, there's a LOT of that.) I'm impressed, too, by the sheer scope of the novel, as it covers themes ranging from death, the role of science, human dignity and empathy to love, intelligence, language and psychology. Think of any Big Theme and you'll probably find it here. Which is not to say that it feels bloated or contrived; the story unfolds organically and convincingly.

 

Why three stars, then? Well, I'm not sure. What I know is that, while I could see how technically skilled this book was, and could marvel in a cold, detached, Literature Critic-type way at its achievement, I didn't enjoy it, in that visceral way you get with really good books. It felt a little grey, a little claustrophobic. Nothing is really described, apart from Charlie's state of mind; even scenes in which he took part looked, to my mind's eye, detached and far-off and, for some reason which may have something to do with the blue cover of my SF Masterworks copy, a dull shade of grey-blue. I couldn't help comparing it to that great novel of scientific meddling, Frankenstein, which is also narrated in the first person by the subject of Science Gone Wrong, but which is so vibrant, so highly-coloured, so alive, even as it despairs. It's not a favourable comparison.

 

Of course, your mileage may vary depending on how grim you like your narratives. But, for me, it was a sort of literary equivalent of C4's period drama The Mill: unremittingly grim and grey. Better written, of course, more experimental, cleverer, but not very much fun.