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Sunday, 22 February 2015

Flowers for Algernon (Daniel Keyes)

“I don’t know what’s worse: to not know what you are and be happy, or to become what you’ve always wanted to be, and feel alone.”

Flowers For Algernon is an award winning novel by Daniel Keyes about Charlie, mentally retarded and approached by a group of scientists, Charlie goes through the remarkable experiment to become a genius. Written in a collection of progress reports Keyes brilliantly reflects the growing intelligence of Charlie in the writing, he not only goes from miss spelling to a walking thesaurus but the growth in philosophical thinking and reflective thinking drags you into Charlie's life as he begins to remember his life and re evaluate those around him.

Of course that is not the story of the whole novel, whilst his development connects you to Charlie in an unusual coming of age story whilst Charlie struggles with his misaligned growth of intelligence compared to his emotional development the science begins to fall apart. Algernon, the mouse doppelganger and success story of the experiment falls ill and Charlie's fate is in his own hands, only he is smart enough to fix his own damning prognosis.

Whilst I was originally dragged to the story by the idea of a damned scientist searching for an answer I was completely wrong about how much the book would balance on that idea. Keyes focuses for a long time on the growth of Charlie and the discovery of his past and his family who he had all but forgotten. As you begin to identify with Charlie the level of empathy is incredible. The balance in the scales between the happy retard and the intelligent but bitter professor switching is compelling, you feel from page to page how the knowledge is power but not happiness, and ultimately he cannot become "powerful" enough.

So when the fall finally happens and Charlie begins to slip back and his IQ begins to drop it is legitimately hard to keep reading, I expected to really enjoy the downfall but it written in such a brutal way that whilst I enjoyed it, it was depressing. Keyes' final few pages remind you that Charlie is back to being happy despite his loss of intelligence. Another interesting transition to watch through Charlie's growth is that of naivety and innocence whilst he battles away with all manner of Freudian psychosis.

Flowers for Algernon is a must read for science fiction fans and for everyone else, it does what all good sci fi does and uses a scientific plot device to inspect the human condition. Under the telescope of Keyes' novel is the well known coming of age story, however Charlie's mismatched intelligence and emotional control offer a unique perspective of self reflection. The decline of Charlie's intelligence adds a brutally tragic sense of urgency as well as showing both the beauty and sadness in child like naivety. A masterpiece for many reasons, and a deep one at that, I not only recommend Flowers for Algernon to you but I think I may have to take my own advice and read it again.


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