“Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes has been in my to-be-read pile for some time now, and it came so highly recommended by my book club friends Peter and Orly, so I decided to bump it up last January.
Originally a Hugo award-winning short story written in 1958, “Flowers for Algernon” was expanded into a full length novel, which subsequently won the Nebula award in 1966. The story is told from the point of view of Charlie Gordon, a mentally-challenged man who becomes the subject of a study, causing his IQ to dramatically increase after he undergoes brain surgery.
I won’t elaborate on the summary as I don’t want to give away major plot points — I had no idea what the story was about when I started reading it (I skipped the summary at the back of the book) but I was quickly engrossed in it all the same.
The novel is told in progress reports written by Charlie himself, which I thought was a brilliant storytelling device. Not only does it make for a strong protagonist voice; the writing also reflects the changes in Charlie resulting from the experiment, not just in his grasp of language (the entries show changes in spelling and grammar) but also in his perception of the world around him.
Algernon, by the way, is the laboratory mouse on which the experiment was initially performed, and I thought that was powerful symbolism — the changes in Algernon are mirrored in Charlie; Algernon’s journey through the maze parallels Charlie making his way through a new life; and Charlie himself identifies with Algernon.
I also appreciated how accessible the novel is. Science fiction is a recent discovery for me; I only started getting into the genre in recent years, and I still shy away from hard sci-fi. While the procedure done on Charlie is entirely fictional (even in this day and age), everything else in the book is pretty much rooted in reality and not overrun with technical jargon, making the story accessible even to the mainstream reader. I like how the novel transcends the science and explores its implications, which is what draws me to the genre in the first place. I like the philosophical aspect of science fiction, and “Flowers for Algernon” delivers on this count, giving readers plenty to chew on as it presents the moral dilemma of science versus respect for life, and poses questions on the interplay of intellect and emotion in a human person.
I found “Flowers for Algernon” to be an excellent read, with all the elements coming together to create powerful impact on the reader. It’s fascinating and heartbreaking (*tears*) and thought-provoking all at the same time, and it’s the kind of book that stays with you long after you’ve finished it.
P.S. I found out there’s a 1968 film (entitled Charly) and a 2000 tv movie, which makes me curious about how the book was adapted — must hunt down copies!
Flowers for Algernon, trade paperback, 5/5 stars
Flowers for Algernon is available at National Book Store.